Theresa May’s reshuffle wasn’t her first attempt to reboot her premiership. These various initiatives have much in common. Each has been an attempt to create political space, to look beyond the challenges of delivering Brexit. And each has backfired.
This is principally a matter of political time. The government does not have the headspace to pursue other things. In negotiating with the EU while remaining a member, the government is trying, as May’s former ambassador to Brussels Ivan Rogers put it, to ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’. But, every time it looks beyond Brexit, it trips over its own shoelaces.
Talk of Brexit was conspicuously absent from the reshuffle, as the Conservative Party again looked to assert that its objectives reach further than negotiations with the European Union. But it was there in the background, constraining May’s political choices.
It was managing the political tensions of Brexit that ultimately limited her capacity to make significant changes in personnel. Above all else, the need to placate conflicting wings of her party dictated the make-up of her top team.
May’s first significant attempt to change gear – near forgotten until detailed in Tim Shipman’s latest book – was the programmatic relaunch of the government in March 2017. The Plan for Britain was built over months by her then advisors Nick Timothy and Chris Wilkes, an attempt to demonstrate that her plans extended beyond Brexit to the ‘burning injustices’ set out on day one in Downing Street.
An exercise in political communication, it collapsed as George Osborne’s editorship of the Evening Standard was announced on the same day.
May called a general election (rightly, it turned out) on the grounds that her numbers in parliament created a logic that would constrain her choices on Brexit. The freedom provided by a large parliamentary majority would be a freedom to look forward, rather than anxiously backwards at her backbenches.
But, as Sir John Curtice has set out, the contours of the result were shaped by the referendum and its aftermath. Which meant, ultimately, the Conservatives’ majority disintegrated.
The next effort at renewal, in October, was Theresa May’s Party Conference Speech. Just ten lines centred on Brexit, as May tried again to present an agenda for government. It is remembered for myriad presentational disasters. But the bigger structural problem was an inability to think big about the governmental decisions beyond the enactment of the referendum result.
And then came the reshuffle. Each failure has been interpreted as emblematic of a lack of political touch. What draws these events together is, principally, an attempt to widen the policy debate and shift the political terrain beyond Brexit.
But blaming all this on May’s leadership style, or her party management skills, misses the key point. Cabinet reshuffles are the public dramatization of existing fault lines over Brexit options within government, which May is powerless to fundamentally change.
This Brexit effect can also be seen in issues that appear, at first glance, unrelated to Britain’s relationship with the European Union. As Tony Blair set out his case for the reversal of the referendum, one of his core arguments – a criticism he levelled at Labour as much as the Conservative Party – was that ‘the whole energy of the government is going to be spent on Brexit’.
The energy exerted is over what might mostly sound like prosaic organisations problems: co-ordinating across departments, recruitment and retention of staff, and creating new administrative bodies to replicate the old European ones.
But they cannot be avoided and come at what, in the jargon of economics, is a high ‘opportunity cost’: the money and, more importantly, the time cannot be spent on other things.
These opportunity costs are governmental, but also political. Brexit consumes Westminster just as much as Whitehall. The inescapability of Brexit was seen when Theresa May went to the Liaison Committee before Christmas – well over half of the questions were directly related to negotiations with the EU.
The government’s legislative agenda will be subsumed by Brexit, with 2018 likely to culminate in the ‘meaningful vote’ secured by parliament.
Given that, in the medium term, it is possible that one of the few significant changes from the reshuffle on Monday was the potential addition of a ‘mutineer’ in Justine Greening.
The biggest winners were, potentially, Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Kenneth Clarke. It is a reminder that, however much May seeks to whistle another tune, all roads lead back to Europe.
By Alan Wager, a research associate with The UK in a Changing Europe