ConservativeHome became cautious about having a reshuffle now, less than a year after Ministers were appointed in the wake of last June’s poll, rather than after the local elections that will take place this spring. But we argued that when it came, it should be ambitious: that at its heart should be a coherent plan for Britain, based on ending tensions at the top of the Cabinet over the shape of the post-Brexit economy, and giving housing the social reform priority that it urgently needs. To this end, we recommended appointing Michael Gove as Chancellor, and making housing a stand-alone department under Sajid Javid’s leadership.
You may agree or disagree, but at least we presented a clear plan. The starting-point for considering yesterday’s calamity-plagued real life alternative is to ask what Theresa May’s own scheme was. There was a gulf between what it did (namely, to sack no Cabinet Ministers at all, but swap a few jobs around between them), and what was anticipated (a “significant” shuffle in which up to six of them might be fired). A lazy snap reaction would be to blame Downing Street’s communications team. A more probing one is to ask whether the Prime Minister woke up yesterday morning with a clear plan for her Cabinet at all.
For the most natural explanation of the farce over Chris Grayling’s non-appointment-appointment as Party Chairman is that his name was still in the frame until very late in the day – hence the origin of CCHQ’s cocked-up tweet. There was also a woeful failure of political intelligence at Number Ten. Jeremy Hunt was unwilling to move; the shuffle was well-trailed. So the Health Secretary’s intention should surely have been made known to the Prime Minister before his meeting with her yesterday. She should not have been in the position of having to plead with a Minister whose talents she needs, faced with a choice of giving in or sacking him.
At any rate, May at least intended to signal, through her CCHQ appointments, and presumably through more Ministerial appointments today, a commitment to greater diversity. But a mass of new Party vice-chairmen, photographed together outside Downing Street, was never going to signal that – at least, in a way that most voters will notice. In themselves, most of the appointments are very good indeed: we especially welcome Kemi Badenoch as vice-chairman for candidates. They will now need to be properly resourced to work well. The promotion of the two popular, able, likely lads, Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly, to take charge has also been well received.
None the less, those new Vice-Chairman won’t register with most voters, who only clock big changes at the top (if any at all). And at Cabinet level, the Prime Minister’s plan went awry. On the one hand, Justine Greening, like Hunt, should have gone where she was asked to go, if she was still willing to serve. On the other, one can scarcely blame her for taking umbrage at all the briefing against her, laid out all over the media during the last few days. The long and short of it is that May’s diversity shuffle has lost her only lesbian Cabinet Minister, seen no new ethnic minority member promoted, and shown her willing to give way to a man – but not to a woman.
All this is a reminder that “the diversity agenda” comes with danger. Why don’t white working-class men fit into the picture? Is the main Tory problem in Parliament now really too few women, rather than too few people with public sector experience – and too few with ability, of any background at all? Diversity in itself is a Tory essential. But there is a gap between the London-led view of what it is (cheerled by a media that is most well-paid, middle-class, relatively young and socially liberal) and other takes that are likely to have more resonance in the rest of the country.
Consider the case of Maria Caulfield, yesterday made Vice-Chairman for Women. Her pro-life views on abortion are not those of most voters. But nor are those of her pro-choice critics who back terminations practically up to birth. Watch for Caulfield now to become a media villain, and Greening – pro-Remain, and more centrist on education than her recent Tory predecessors – to become a media hero. Given the Prime Minister’s starting-point, she needed a diversity card up her sleeve, when faced with Greening’s instransigence. One option would have been to appoint Margot James to Cabinet level, perhaps as the second Business Minister attending.
Amidst the smoke and wreckage this morning, there are a few points of hope and light. One is that strengthened CCHQ team. Another is the appointment of David Lidington at the Cabinet Office. Matt Hancock has a chance to shine at Culture. But the absence of major change leaves May as a Claudio Ranieri-style Tinkerwoman, disrupting departments for little apparent gain. Karen Bradley has the steepest of learning curves at Northern Ireland. Esther McVey returns to Work and Pensions, where the Hard Left and Twitter trolls will try to do a Toby Young on her (he has quit this morning), just as they will on Caulfield.
The manner of Greening’s going also provides the worst possible media framing for her successor at Education, Damian Hinds – perhaps the most crucial appointment of all. She is now free to shore up her position in marginal Putney by causing trouble for the Prime Minister over Brexit. The shuffle also risks the revenge of other sacked Ministers. That Ruth Davidson tweeted in Greening’s support yesterday is further evidence, were any needed, that the culture wars of wider society are alive and well in the Conservative Party. And talking of negative briefing that wasn’t decisively dealt with, May has surely lost the good will of another Cabinet survivor – Greg Clark.
All in all, it is hard to improve on verdict of the Emperor of Twitter, Nicholas Soames. “I don’t mean to be rude or to be seen to be disloyal,” he tweeted, “but there needs to be a major improvement to the Reshuffle tomorrow.” Quite so. The first rule of a shuffle is that it must leave the Party leader at least as strong when it ends as when it started. It has been spectacularly broken so far. No Brexit contingency Minister to date; a footling Housing title change. Where on earth were the Whips? That cackling noise you hear from Kensington, sulphorously malicious and exultantly gleeful, is George Osborne laughing his head off.