The Sunday Times reports that a senior Minister who backed Remain in the EU referendum wants Michael Gove to replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor – on the grounds that, first, warnings about Brexit-related problems would not then be dismissed by Leave supporters and, second, because “we need a chancellor who is inventive and proactive.”
This is broadly the case made by ConservativeHome exactly a week ago, since when the Daily Mail, Nigel Lawson, Fraser Nelson and others have piled in, calling for the Chancellor to be moved or fired. The Sunday Telegraph also says that Gove is being touted for the post, adding that the DUP want Hammond “reined in”.
Not so fast.
Given Theresa May’s natural caution, and the Government’s lack of a Commons majority, she is unlikely to transfer or dismiss a senior Remain-backing Minister without doing the same to a senior Leave-supporting one – or trying to. So whatever the Chancellor intended, his article this week on contingency planning, which was widely read as him digging in his heels, may well have had the effect of weakening not only his position, but also that of the Foreign Secretary. Hammond’s Times piece was the equivalent of Boris Johnson’s Telegraph missive.
To seek to change two of the Government’s top three Ministers is dangerous, in these circumstances. No wonder Gavin Williamson is reported to be urging caution.
None the less, the Prime Minister herself, by indicating in a recent interview that she was prepared for a reshuffle, has made it harder now to back out of having one. Elsewhere, the Sunday Times claims that the Chancellor wants a bold, radical budget…only a few days after it was reported, entirely accurately, that “the cupboard is bare” and that his wiggle-room has been “drastically cut”.
All in all, then, the Government could be reduced to incoherence if it doesn’t sort its personnel problems at the top. But one mistaken move risks destabilising the Prime Minister further. More to the point, she must resolve her Brexit strategy before moving anyone: any reshuffle must be framed to fit a plan, not the other way round.
But she has yet to make it clear whether she favours a post-Brexit economic, social and regulatory model that is relatively close to the EU’s, such as Switzerland, or less close, such as Canada’s. Furthermore, Hammond cannot afford a risky Budget that goes wrong. However, the Conservative conference confirmed the dangers of simply standing still.
One can set three pluses against all this. First, that the Government’s reputation for economic competence has not been trashed, unlike that of the Major administration of 1992-97. Second, that the Conservative poll rating, which is knocking around at about 40 per cent, is very high by the standard of recent years. And, third, that there is the best part of five years before the next election.
None the less, the conference season has left the Government looking less coherent than it was before. Since a reshuffle has not been ruled out, one is now being touted in the wake of next weekend’s European Summit. We hold to the view that Gove should go the Treasury – adding only that if the Prime Minister has now ruled a shuffle out, she should let that be known as soon as possible.