Botched reshuffle casts Theresa May as tragic victim of Brexit

Published by The Guardian (10th January, 2018)

In one sense at least, Theresa May’s ministerial reshuffle was a triumph. After 18 months of her disastrous reign as prime minister, we have become inured to her bumbling incompetence. Yet with this botched shake-up that promised so much and delivered so little, she has achieved something many thought impossible: she has made herself look even weaker and more out of her depth. Give her credit, for this was some achievement.

The reshuffle aimed to showcase May’s renewed authority after a minor Brexit advance but ended up reminding us of her failings. She could not shift an appalling foreign secretary who endangered a British citizen held abroad, but forced out an education secretary smart enough to oppose her idea to revive grammar schools. As others have observed, an Old Etonian man survived while the state-schooled, gay woman obsessed with social mobility was forced out. Other senior ministers simply refused to budge, one even ending up with an enlarged department.

As the Tory party decays with dwindling membership and the lack of a youth wing, the chairman was also turfed out. Few could quibble; last year’s election campaign was a disaster and the party’s communication skills highlighted by a tweet naming the wrong man as his replacement. It felt like one more act in a long-running farce. Yet a makeover at party headquarters cannot mask reality: all the blame for calling the election in breach of clear promises, then bungling the manifesto and botching the campaign, rests with the leader who called the shots.

May lurches from disaster to disaster. It is not just that she is enfeebled, trying to force through Brexit after blowing her majority with a bitterly divided party, and propped up in office by a handful of Ulster hardliners. Nor only that her political instincts are often flawed and outdated, whether seeking to revive fox-hunting and grammar schools through to stubborn insistence on keeping students in the silly immigration cap. Nor even that when she sometimes saying the right thing, such as on fighting injustice or tackling corporate wrongdoing, she fails to follow through with transformative action.

I fear the problem is more profound. I hoped May might rise above the xenophobic populism that shrouded her tenure at the Home Office, given her fine words on fighting for equality and as the person who first publicly identified the nasty-party problem 16 years ago. Instead, she has shrivelled and regressed in office. Perhaps the skills ensuring survival in her previous post – essentially a defensive, control-freak posture against potential mishap – are simply the wrong qualities for running a government.

One former cabinet minister told me he sat next to her in weekly meetings for five years and never once heard her proffer a political viewpoint on anything outside her brief. Other colleagues say she is not just shy but an empty vessel, fearful of doing anything that might cause the slightest ructions. One suggested lack of confidence explained why she was so vindictive to people associated with the ancien regime of her predecessor, unwise politics since it stoked up needless resentments.

Yet even with a fragile majority, a leader can pursue real reform. Rival parties might back a shake-up of our dismal prison policies, for instance, but instead the justice job is deemed irrelevant, with its sixth minister in eight years. The only mark of May’s government, beyond dedication to a Brexit cause that alienates most under-50s, has been consistent misjudgment. This has been seen on major issues, such as triggering article 50 with no sense of a desired deal despite the two-year deadline, through to minor but strategically important matters, such as backing Toby Young for a public post that shored up the corrosive image she once railed against.

With every mishap, May looks less like a prime minister and more like a political prisoner, trapped in Downing Street by her own troops as the tragic victim of Brexit conflict engulfing her party. Yes, there were some decent appointments from all wings of the party lower down the ranks, bringing forward figures that are best hope for salvaging something from the post-May wreckage. And I applaud the positive discrimination for ethnic minority and female MPs. But this reshuffle served only to remind Britain that it has a prime minister not up to the job in tumultuous times.

Reshuffles excite Westminster but make minimal impact on voters. Yet they can be politically important, exposing or symbolising wider issues, as did May’s shambolic party conference speech. Once again, we see a prime minister who is indecisive, inept, powerless, displays persistent poor judgment, possesses flawed instincts, lacks campaign skills and is largely pointless beyond Brexit. She inspires at best sympathy, at worst ridicule, and is fortunate the opposition is also useless. But is this really the best the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher can offer the voters of today’s Britain?

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