News analysis

May fails to stamp her authority

British PM reshuffles Cabinet but leaves in place those responsible for biggest divisions

Britain has a revamped Cabinet, in which ministers who adopt a more moderate stance towards the European Union, and who want their country to maintain cordial relations with the EU after the British leave the bloc next year, appear to be in the ascendancy.

But the Cabinet reshuffle which Prime Minister Theresa May implemented on Monday has failed to bolster her position, both inside her ruling Conservative Party and the country. And it may be the harbinger of future political troubles for Mrs May.

Although the outgoing Cabinet was only formed in the aftermath of last June's general election, a reshuffle became inevitable after Mr Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister and one of Mrs May's closest advisers, was forced to resign shortly before Christmas because of allegations of sexual harassment of colleagues.

It was acknowledged from the start in London that, although the reshuffle theoretically gave Mrs May the chance to improve the workings of government and tighten control over her Cabinet, the fact that the Prime Minister does not enjoy an overall majority in Parliament means her ability to appoint and dismiss ministers would always be limited.

And so it proved: the ministers responsible for the biggest divisions inside the Cabinet were left untouched. These include Finance Minister Philip Hammond who has angered many Tory MPs by often appearing to undermine the government's position in the separation negotiations with the EU, as well as Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who often amuses the media with his apparently patchy understanding of the finer points of diplomacy and is regarded as fundamentally disloyal.

Both remain in their posts, as does Mr David Davis, the minister responsible for handling the EU divorce talks, another thorn in the PM's flesh. Mrs May judged - probably correctly - that she could not afford to have any of them dismissed from the Cabinet and sulk on the parliamentary backbenches, where they may pose a mortal threat to her rule.

Nevertheless, the British leader did make a handful of changes which, although not necessarily attention-grabbing, will improve her handling of policy. The first was the appointment of Mr Brandon Lewis, a 46-year-old MP highly regarded by his peers, as party chairman, a key post which requires total loyalty to the PM.

She also promoted Mr James Cleverly, the son of African immigrants and a relatively new MP, to the post of deputy party leader; Mr Cleverly is seen as a fast-rising political star, fully deserving his family name, as the joke among his colleagues goes.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left, centre) with her reshuffled Cabinet yesterday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (left, centre) with her reshuffled Cabinet yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Significantly, the PM appointed Mr David Lidington, another loyal supporter, as Cabinet Office Minister, a position which entails the coordination of policy across government departments. Mr Lidington served previously as Europe Minister and is known for his fine grasp of EU bureaucratic detail; he is also an ardent pro-European, so his appointment is intended to signal Mrs May's preference for a separation deal with the EU which maintains as many of Britain's links with Europe as possible.

Still, the reshuffle was chaotic, and thereby failed to boost Mrs May's authority. Conservative Party headquarters initially identified the wrong person as the new party chief, a mistake which recalled the goofy comedy of errors at the party conference last year, when letters from a slogan on the party platform started dropping as the PM was speaking.

Worse, two ministers refused to be moved to new positions; one - Education Minister Justine Greening - simply resigned, while the other - Health Minister Jeremy Hunt - successfully persuaded the PM that he should remain in his post. Mrs May's inability to impose her will on her ministers and the failure of her advisers to prepare the ground adequately for the reshuffle will do nothing to enhance her claim to competence.

Be that as it may, Mrs May looks safe for the moment. There is no single candidate within the party who could take her job. And in her own, often unstated way, the PM can still surprise. Few political observers in London believed that she would be able to conclude the preliminary separation negotiations with the EU by the end of last year, but she did so.

And although she is not particularly good at asserting her authority, she is very good at absorbing political blows and persevering. And that may turn out to be her biggest asset.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'May fails to stamp her authority'. Print Edition | Subscribe