LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May’s long-awaited government reshuffle Monday (Jan 9) was branded ineffectual and shambolic after she promoted few fresh faces to her top team and a minister resigned rather than accept a new post.
Education Secretary Justine Greening became the fourth minister to leave the Cabinet since November, after resisting a request to move to the welfare and pensions ministry. Meanwhile health minister Jeremy Hunt convinced May at the last minute to scrap plans to move him to the business department, according to media reports.
Most of her senior ministers also kept their jobs in the reshuffle, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit minister David Davis and finance minister Philip Hammond.
The prime minister carried out what her office called a “refresh” of the government after sacking her deputy Damian Green last month in a row over pornography found on his computer in 2008. His departure followed those of the defence and aid ministers in unrelated scandals the previous month.
May hoped the shakeup would help her reassert authority ahead of crunch Brexit negotiations this year, and following a torrid 2017 in which she lost her parliamentary majority in a snap election last summer.
An interim deal on Brexit in December appeared to give her new impetus, and the much-anticipated reshuffle was arranged. But the day began in a farcical fashion when her Conservative party announced a new chairman on Twitter, only to delete the tweet and later name another lawmaker for the post.
“No wonder Theresa May’s struggling to negotiate Brexit – she can’t even organise a reshuffle,” opposition Labour MP Stephen Kinnock swiftly tweeted.
Following Hunt’s reported refusal to move and Greening’s resignation later Monday, Britain’s newspapers were quick to lambast May’s reboot. The Times’ front page called the reshuffle “shambolic” while The Daily Telegraph declared it the “night of the blunt stiletto”.
Some conservative lawmakers appeared to agree, with Tory grandee Nicholas Soames tweeting: “I don’t mean to be rude or to be seen to be disloyal but there needs to be a major improvement to the reshuffle tomorrow.”
May is expected to announce a reshuffle of her lower government ranks on Tuesday (Jan 10).
Greening’s resignation is likely to be viewed as a challenge to the prime minister’s already fragile authority. She was offered the welfare ministry “but declined to take it”, a Downing Street source said. “The prime minister is disappointed but respects her decision to leave the government”, the source added.
For her part Greening said in a tweet that educational issues like social mobility matter “more than my ministerial career”, and vowed to continue to work for young people as a member of parliament.
May’s room for manoeuvre is limited by heading a minority government and the need to maintain a delicate Cabinet balance of eurosceptic and pro-European ministers as major Brexit decisions loom.
After starting the two-year withdrawal process in March last year, Britain struck a deal in December on the financial settlement with Brussels, as well as on expatriate rights and the Irish border. Negotiations on a transition deal begin this month, while the toughest talks, on Britain’s future relationship with the EU including trade, are set to start in March.
Johnson, a leading Brexit supporter, kept his job at the foreign office, despite challenging May’s strategy last year, as did fellow eurosceptic Liam Fox, the international trade minister. Finance minister Hammond and interior minister Amber Rudd, who campaigned to stay in the EU, continue as before.
Former justice secretary David Lidington took over the policy coordination role previously held by Green but did not inherit the title of
May’s deputy. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who failed to secure a deal to restore the power-sharing government in Belfast after it collapsed a year ago, stepped down for health reasons on Monday and has been replaced by culture minister Karen Bradley.
The former Conservative party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, lost his job after the disastrous snap election. It was one of several low points last year for the prime minister, who took office in July 2016 after the referendum on leaving the EU and began her tenure strongly with a bold Cabinet reshuffle.