Reshuffling can be a tricky business and, under a minority government, getting a reshuffle in the Whips’ Office right is of particular importance.
The top whipping job has simply been inherited by Julian Smith, who was deputy to Gavin Williamson. Downing Street will no doubt cite the logic of offering some continuity in the role, and getting a smooth transition by giving it to someone who already knows the ropes of the current complicated situation in the Commons. Others, as has been suggested elsewhere, see Smith’s promotion as effectively Williamson retaining influence over the Whips by ensuring one of his allies got the gig.
What’s perhaps more interesting is the choice of Esther McVey as the new Deputy Chief Whip. The Opposition absolutely loathe her for her past role as a Work and Pensions minister (recall John McDonnell’s charming “joke” about her, in which he claimed constituents want to “lynch the bastard”). That poisonous attitude towards McVey, combined with her robust performances on television, have endeared her to many Conservative activists, and a lot of Tories were very pleased to see her return to Parliament in George Osborne’s old seat back in June.
Given her past experience and profile, it’s not a surprise to see her appointed to a frontbench role. However, making her a Whip in particular has raised a few eyebrows. As a former television presenter, and combative on-screen performer since entering politics, her strength is generally thought to be in public-facing roles – but Whips don’t do that kind of work, preferring to operate largely in private for obvious reasons.
McVey’s new job is very different from her old one; cajoling, persuading, charming and, yes, sometimes pressuring her colleagues into supporting the Government line will exercise a different set of political muscles to her past work as a pugilist on the public stage. She’s also a passionate Leave supporter – a true BeLeaver, if you will – who now finds herself tasked regularly with keeping the rump of potential pro-EU rebels in order and on board.
She will be glad to be back on the front line, and many Tories will no doubt be glad to see her there. The hard work of making her new, very different, job a success begins immediately.