Theresa May has taken to power like the proverbial duck to water – demonstrating a grip on her party and on her agenda that has surprised many of her colleagues. It is important to remember that the Conservative Party has a majority of just twelve. It sometimes feels like more but that is a trick of the light, conjured by Labour’s unique take on the role of Most Loyal Opposition (opposition mostly to one another for the time being). That slender grip on power and on Parliament would have been a powerful incentive to avoid too much boat rocking. Keeping people where they are is always less trouble than shoving them out the way – at least, that was long Cameron’s logic. What’s more, many of the old order felt that in the end they had leant May just enough support and just enough of their infrastructure to guarantee them a spot at the top table. The new Prime Minister has confounded such expectations with a reshuffle that is radical, for the most part meritocratic and above all else, ruthless.
First the sackings. Osborne and Gove – for so long the Son and Holy Ghost in Cameron’s Trinity – banished to the back-benches. The Justice Secretary will have known his time was up the moment the coronation came. He has long shared a real animus with May – she resented his patronising style of debate and he frequently took pot-shots at her to curry favour with Osborne and Cameron who (correctly, it turns out) perceived her as a threat. What is more, any fears May might have had about acting against Gove were allayed as it became clear that he had discarded almost all his support in the Parliamentary Party the moment he dumped Boris Johnson from a tremendous height. Still, one imagines that Gove and his journalist wife Sarah Vine put their new spare time to good use – perhaps they will set about mending fences with old friends.
For Osborne, though, it looked like a shock. If he hadn’t been expecting to get something – Foreign Secretary, he thought – he would surely have resigned at the same time as Cameron so as to dictate the terms of his departure. Instead the Osbornes were smuggled from Downing St late last night. May had been warned-off culling the Chancellor – some felt that his networks in the party could cause the PM trouble – but she has calculated that her own power of patronage renders him impotent. Politics is a fickle business and most of Osborne’s co-conspirators and sometime allies will be all too happy to trade loyalty for office.
David Cameron had little time for re-engineering Whitehall. He told aides that he couldn’t see the point in inventing new departments or shuffling responsibilities around. Theresa May seems to think differently. This reshuffle has seen the creation of three new Secretary of State positions – with, presumably, new departments to match. First International Trade – a new Cabinet-level role that plays to Liam Fox’s strengths without straying too far into his weaknesses. Second, ‘Secretary of State for European Exit’ – or ‘Minister for Brexit’ as David Davis will be universally dubbed. This new role is the product of circumstance and will involve working across almost every Government department. The fact that Davis was Theresa May’s pick is illustrative too – the two frequently clashed over civil liberties in her time as Home Secretary and many are seeing this rapprochement as a sign that May wishes to move on sharply from old ideological battles. Finally, Greg Clark gets the new title of Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and a Frankenstein department cobbled together out of BIS and DECC. Greg Clark is one of those politicians absolutely beloved of think tankers and policy wonks but who has not in the past really cut through in the career stakes – he will now be at the absolute centre of Government, responsible for driving Theresa May’s distinctive ‘red tory’ economic agenda.
One of the other big surprises of the last two days was the sudden and dramatic resurrection of Boris Johnson. As Foreign Secretary he finally now possesses one of the great offices of state. Many have been bemused by somber May’s appointment of such a consummate cavalier to such an important job. Some of that criticism is unfair on Johnson – who is nothing if not charming – but it is also worth bearing in mind that the difficult diplomacy of Brexit and the complicated detail-work of trade negotiations have both been carved out for others to do. Boris has kept all the shiny bits of the FCO while much of the tough stuff has been parceled out to Fox and Davis – one cannot imagine he objected much.
Over the coming days junior posts will be filled and we will get a clearer view of the complexion of what is, in effect, a whole new Government. But here’s what we already know. One, Theresa will disappoint those who underestimated her and thought she could be used as the continuity Cameron candidate. Two, and related, she has a plan. Gordon Brown was much criticized for wanting to become Prime Minister so much that he forgot quite what on earth he was going to do when he got it. It is early days, but it looks very much as though Theresa May has spent six years watching Cameron, thinking about what she would do differently and taking copious notes. It’s a safe bet that civil servants across Government are about to find out why she was loved and feared in equal measure by their colleagues at the Home Office. It seems she really does mean business.