Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
I write this in the aftermath of the horror at Grenfell Tower in West London and I am fully aware that picking apart a reshuffle, after so many people have tragically died, makes the ‘game of politics’ seem petty. But writing about politics is what I do, so here goes.
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I don’t think I have experienced a reshuffle of which I’ve thought afterwards: “yup, that was a good one”. Timeservers remain in government while talented ministers are inexplicably sacked. This reshuffle was no different. There seems to be little long-term planning; little thought of career development, and little appointment based on expertise.
Appointments of Ministers below Cabinet level are generally shaped by the Chief Whip, with less involvement from the Prime Minister. Her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, will have been involved too.
And the one theme that runs through this reshuffle at Minister of State and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State level is the advance of Remain-supporting Tory MPs. It’s as if last year’s EU referendum had never happened. Many are wondering whether the new First Secretary of State, the arch-Remain supporting Damian Green, has also been wielding some reshuffle influence.
So here’s the list as I write of 13 new Ministers or retreads (including recent whips) who supported Remain:
- Mark Field
- Jackie Doyle-Price
- Steve Brine
- Claire Perry
- Alok Sharma
- John Glen
- Alistair Burt
- Michael Ellis
- Chloe Smith
- Mel Stride
- Steve Barclay
- Anne Milton
- Guy Opperman
I can find only three new entrants to the government who supported Brexit…
- Steve Baker
- Jake Berry
- Martin Callanan.
Thirteen to three: draw your own conclusions. Furthermore, Leavesupporting ministers Andrew Percy and Robert Syms have left the government. The question is whether Williamson has done all this deliberately off his own bat, or whether it’s due to orders from Number Ten. I’m afraid that I can offer no answer, but it doesn’t bode well for those of us who continue to believe that Brexit must mean Brexit.
One of the most concerning aspects of the shuffle has been the defenestration of the Brexit Department. Just six days before the negotiations with the EU are to begin, David Davis was left with one junior minister, Robin Walker. Last weekend his Lords minister, George Bridges, resigned – apparently in part because he felt he couldn’t do his job any longer because of the obstruction of Number Ten.
And he did so even though two of the main obstructors had left their jobs. One report claimed that they wouldn’t even show him the draft Article 50 letter. He was in charge of preparing the Great Repeal Bill – one of the most complex pieces of legislation ever to be put before Parliament. He was a uniting force, and well thought of in the Lords.
Then on Tuesday, the Minister of State in the department – David Jones, the former Wales Secretary – was summarily fired. It’s been reported elsewhere that Davis was not consulted in advance, and that no reason was given – although the decision is thought to be related to a slightly disloyal comment Jones is said to have made over the weekend, in which where he emulated Rab Butler’s famous description of Sir Anthony Eden by describing May as “the strongest leader we have got at the moment.” Those last three words apparently did for him. How petty can you get? Jones had spent the last year building alliances in the foreign ministries of Europe, and had received praise for his Commons performances.
Bizarrely, Secretaries of State are rarely consulted over the appointment of their junior ministers. The Lords replacement for Bridges was Baroness Anelay, an arch-remainer and former Foreign Office minister. She was a valued member of Davis’s shadow home affairs team back in the day when I was his Chief of Staff, and he had an excellent relationship with her – so in some ways it’s a canny appointment.
However, it’s also a provocative one, and quite how she will get up to speed in the time available is one of the more daunting tasks faced by any new ministers. She is a natural conciliator, and one of the nicest people in politics.
All eyes then shifted to the remaining vacancy. Surely May and Williamson couldn’t appoint another Remainer…. could they?
All sorts of rumours were flying around – including one that claimed that Alan Duncan would get the job. One can only imagine what consequences that might have provoked. In the end Steve Baker, the Eurosceptic’s Eurosceptic, was appointed in a last-minute bid to calm the concerns of Brexiteers.
But I just don’t understand why would Number Ten appears deliberately to have provoked Davis when he was the first to rally around May in the hours after the election result? It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that it might just be a good idea to consult him over ministerial appointments. I haven’t spoken to him, so I have no idea whether he is even happy with the appointment of Steve Baker. On the face of it he might well be, but a more sensible appointment to that post might have been Dominic Raab. Raab succeeded me as his Chief of Staff and would have been brilliant in the role. In the event, he’s been sent to the Ministry of Justice.
Moving on to other departments, what on earth was behind the sackings of Robert Halfon and Mike Penning? Halfon is one of the most popular Conservative MPs in the Commons, with no one having a bad word to say about him. Penning has been a highly impressive minister across several departments. Both illustrated how the Conservative Party had changed, and in PR terms were very useful, given their backgrounds. And yet both were axed.
In Penning’s case, you could argue that if he was never going to get into Cabinet, maybe it was time for him to go. But if so, how does one explain the survival of a whole host of other Ministers of State? No names, no pack drill. Penning was the best Roads Minister in living memory, a superb Home Office Minister, and did well in every job he was given. And yet he never made it Cabinet, mainly because he was never seen as one of the ‘beautiful people’.
Halfon was a key ally of George Osborne. Did this play a part in the decision to sack him? If so, how small-minded can you get? He really was (and is) the face of working class Conservatism. What message does it send to despatch him summarily to the back benches? Unless there’s something I am missing, it’s an inexplicable decision.
I could go on. But I leave you with a final thought. John Hayes survives yet another reshuffle. Kudos. Respect. I suspect he belongs to the Alistair Burt & Michael Gove category of ministers. Better to have them inside the tent pissing out…
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Quite why Tim Farron chose to resign on the day when the news was dominated by the Grenfell Tower disaster is anyone’s guess. Reading some of the responses, it’s as if he media hounded him out of office for his views on moral issues and his religion.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Had Farron given straight answers to straight questions, we’d have all respected that. But he didn’t. He equivocated to a point when we all suspected the answers he was giving bore little resemblance to his real views.
The point about being a political leader is that you have lead the people, not follow the crowd. If Tim really does believe that homosexuality is a sin, let him come out and declare it. At least we could respect him for his honesty, even if most of us think he would be entirely misguided.