Keeping the balance: why every resignation is a threat to the Prime Minister

Amber Rudd’s resignation as Home Secretary provides further indication, if any were needed, of Theresa May’s precarious situation.  No Prime Minister likes to lose ministers at times not of their choosing. In May’s case, the double whammy of negotiating Brexit and heading a deeply divided minority government multiplies the significance of every resignation. Any changes around the cabinet table risks destabilising the balance of opinion in government, and undermining May’s ability to hold the ring.

Rudd’s departure from the Home Office, triggered by the Windrush scandal and her inadvertent misleading of MPs about immigrant-removal targets, is merely the latest in a flurry of unwanted ministerial resignations.

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, International Development Secretary Priti Patel and First Secretary Damian Green all left the Cabinet for separate transgressions in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

And in the delayed New Year reshuffle, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire quit because of ill health, albeit temporarily, while Education Secretary Justine Greening left the government after refusing to be moved to another job.

Rudd’s departure draws attention to three related challenges facing the Prime Minister. The first is Theresa May’s need to protect what’s left of her tarnished reputation and personal standing.

She squandered both by gambling on an early election and losing her majority. The Windrush scandal now threatens to undermine her position further since it developed from policies that May had introduced when Home Secretary.

The second challenge relates to ministerial staffing. The effective ministerial talent pool is always small at the best of time; it is presently smaller than normal, partly as a result of May’s initial ministerial butchery when she sent a number of able and prominent figures to backbenches in 2016, and partly because of the party’s loss of seats in 2017.

Moreover, every ministerial appointment needs to maintain the current balance between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit wings of the party.  Appointing someone associated strongly with one side risks upsetting the other.

In the wake of Rudd’s departure, May was lucky that James Brokenshire was well enough to return to government so soon.  It enabled her to move Housing Secretary Sajid Javid to the Home Office and appoint Brokenshire in his place.

All of this was done seemingly without fundamentally altering the cabinet’s political balance over Brexit. Rudd had backed Remain in the referendum, Brokenshire had backed Remain. It was a like-for-like swap.

Needless to say, May’s staffing constraints weaken her enormously. The power to appoint and dismiss ministers is probably the single most important resource at any Prime Minister’s disposal. Most ministers know that May’s options are limited.

They know that she knows this. They know they can therefore assert themselves behind closed doors.

May’s ministers also know that their nominal chief is on borrowed time. George Osborne described her as a ‘dead woman walking’ in the wake of the 2017 election. May has proved tenacious but she has clung onto office in part because her party is as divided over her successor as it is over Brexit. That dissensus may end. Thoughts of the future and the next leadership contest will begin to grow in any event.  Ministers will jockey for position accordingly.

The third challenge facing May has already been alluded to: managing her divided party, both in the House of Commons and around the cabinet table.  The two arenas are intricately connected. Ministers champion and reflect opinion among MPs; MPs sometimes follow and sometimes encourage sympathetic ministers.

Rudd’s removal to the backbenches means there is now another senior Tory figure in the House of Commons who can potentially advocate a ‘softer’ form of Brexit, perhaps in the form of a customs partnership.  It also means there is another potential rebel who can threaten to withhold support from any Brexit measures that she deems are too ‘hard’.  Previous studies have shown that ex-ministers are less likely to toe the line. The task of managing Tory MPs has just become that little bit more difficult for the government.

The departure of Rudd and return of Brokenshire has seemingly left the balance of opinion around the cabinet table unaltered.  Both, as noted, supported Remain in 2016.  To be sure, May took the opportunity in June 2017 and January 2018 to increase very slightly the proportion of cabinet attendees—meaning full members and those who merely ‘attend’ cabinet— who backed Leave.  But nothing should have changed with Rudd’s departure.

There are, however, two caveats to this inference.  For a start, not every current minister who backed Remain is equally committed to a soft Brexit now.  Some who publicly supported David Cameron in June 2016 almost certainly did so out of loyalty to him, or pragmatism. Cameron has gone, and pragmatism may well now pull them in a different direction.

The second caveat is that the balance of opinion matters more in some forums than others. The so-called Brexit ‘war cabinet’—formally known as the European Union Exit and Trade (Negotiations) Sub-Committee—which was established in March 2017, is a case in point.

It initially comprised five ministers, two of whom had backed Leave. Because of May’s diminished authority and need to broaden its membership, it now includes 11 ministers, five of whom had backed Leave.

In the wake of a meeting on Wednesday 2 May, the sub-committee chose not endorse the Prime Minister’s preferred option for post-Brexit customs arrangements with the EU.

According to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, six out of the 11 members spoke out against it, including the new home secretary, Sajid Javid.  Had Rudd still been in post, Javid would not have been there, and it is possible that there might have been a majority in favour of the ‘customs partnership’.

Apart from highlighting May’s difficulties in trying to forge agreement among her ministers, the episode highlights an interesting feature of British government.  Decision making occurs in many forums.

Replacing a minister may have a significant effect on the direction of policy in his or her department.  But it can also have second-order effects on other policy areas, especially if the newly appointed minister becomes a pivotal voter in a cabinet committee.

All of this means that, for May, every ministerial coming and going has multiple, and possible unforeseeable consequences.  Given the challenges of Brexit, it’s a wonder that she’s still walking.

By Dr Nicholas Allen, Reader in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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