When James Brokenshire stood down as Northern Ireland Secretary in January for medical reasons, the Prime Minister made no secret of her regret over his departure. “I very much look forward to working alongside you again when you are back to full health,” she wrote to the man who had served as part of her Home Office team from 2011 until she elevated him to the Cabinet in 2016.
A solid May loyalist, Brokenshire’s swift return to health – and thereby to the Commons – made him an obvious candidate for a Cabinet job when such a vacancy arose. Had he not previously served as Immigration Minister, he might have been in the running for the role of Home Secretary itself after Amber Rudd’s resignation.
While Sajid Javid has taken over the Prime Minister’s former department, Brokenshire is instead now charged with a job of equal (or greater) political importance: the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is the focus of huge pressure to deliver a successful and sizeable increase in house-building. It is not a topic that he has dealt with before in a ministerial capacity, but it is one that he must get to grips with visibly and swiftly. Millions of people’s futures – and the outcome of the next General Election – will be hugely influenced by either success or failure on the housing front.
In the wider context of Brexit, and with another Cabinet clash over the question of customs union approaching, it’s notable that Brokenshire previously served in the Northern Ireland Office. He therefore has a more detailed acquaintance than many of his colleagues with the domestic politics of the Province, the policy stances of the Irish Republic, and the frustrations of both.
Ever the loyal supporter of the Prime Minister, in that role he was a firm advocate of the principles that there should be no customs barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and that post-Brexit the whole country must be free to negotiate its own trade deals globally, meaning exit from the customs union and Single Market.
That’s worth knowing, but it would be a mistake to see his appointment primarily through that lens. His new job does not include a seat on the Brexit sub-committee where the decision will be hammered out, and – more importantly – the Ministry brings with it more than enough other responsibilities to occupy his time and energies. He will be a loyal Mayite on Brexit, but it will be housing that dominates his day.