Tom Richmond: Reshuffle chaos lays bare Theresa May’s lack of good advice

Theresa May leads her first Cabinet since the reshuffle.
Theresa May leads her first Cabinet since the reshuffle.
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THIS column was intended to be about ‘leadership’ – and how Theresa May had earned the right for questions about her future to be silenced after successfully concluding the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

Now the Prime Minster is back to square one after a shambolic reshuffle. Far from demonstrating Mrs May’s new-found strength, it simply revealed her weakness and haphazard judgement.

If loyalists like Justine Greening can’t be persuaded to stay in the Government after being stripped of her dream job as Education Secretary and offered the welfare brief as consolation, the culture inside 10 Downing Street must be rotten.

From a Rotherham council estate, the comprehensive-educated Greening was precisely the type of social mobility champion, and bridge-builder, that this country – and the Government – needs.

And that is my point. There did not appear to be any purpose or strategy to this reshuffle – the new Cabinet is just as pale, male and stuffy as it was before this sorry exercise in futility and this reflects very badly on both Mrs May and her chief whip Julian Smith, the Skipton MP.

Did they not establish in advance whether Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, were prepared to swap the health and business briefs?

Did they not realise that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is so mistrusted that it is, frankly, insulting that this Macavity-like figure is still in post?

Did they not think to dampen speculation about the scale of the changes? Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the opposite.

The PM’s only saving grace is that the Tories don’t have a leader-in-waiting – and sufficient Conservative supporters, and voters, remain genuinely fearful of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. That is the Government’s insurance policy for now.

And although Britain’s interests are still – probably – best served by Mrs May leading the country through Brexit, and the subsequent transition period, in the hope that the next generation of junior ministers from all backgrounds do make their mark, it can’t carry on like this.

The Tories have nearly been in power for eight years. They cannot keep blaming Labour – despite the dreadful economic inheritance bequeathed to them. They need to tackle the day-to-day concerns of voters and need much better advisers.

The following three examples say it all. First, Mrs May only became PM because of the ambition of her flawed aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Without them, she would have struggled.

According to Tim Shipman’s new book Fallout: A Year Of Political Mayhem, Timothy would remind colleagues: “There are three people in this government. It’s me, Fiona and the PM.”

They were allowed to treat colleagues, and Ministers, with such contempt that their conduct undermined the Tory leader’s moral compass. They made Labour’s Alastair Campbell look like a shrinking violet in comparison.

Second, why are people appointed to roles in which they have no expertise? Take Brexit. When the Supreme Court ruled that Article 50 could only be triggered by a Parliamentary vote, prompting the Daily Mail headline ‘Enemies of the People’, it fell to Liz Truss, the then Justice Secretary, to respond.

A woman with no experience of the judiciary – or flooding after her disastrous spell as Environment Secretary – Shipman reveals that she was advised by one Kirsty Buchanan as the pair studied the law of the land. Where were the lawyers? Her advisor’s expertise is in the media – from regional newspapers to the Sunday Express – and not a complex legal issue of such historical magnitude. Yet this same aide, now a media advisor to the PM, was pictured this week sitting just behind Mrs May in the Cabinet. Why?

Finally, public appointments do require due diligence. If the private sector had recruited Toby Young to become University Regulator, his social media history would have been investigated and, I suspect, his candidature invalidated.

What would I advise? For a start, all aides to Mrs May’s newly-appointed Ministers should be vetted to assess their character and suitability.

Second, the Prime Minister needs to establish clear protocols on how 10 Downing Street should run so there’s more effective decision-making.

Third, the Tories must show that they are still a party of progress. Focus on the priorities, rather than unnecessary controversies like hunting and grammar schools, that were never going to win Parliamentary support. Where’s the positivity that’s been so lacking since that disastrous election manifesto?

Finally, the Prime Minister should sack the person who told her that it made sense to sack Justine Greening and keep Chris Grayling. Their advice is worthless.

I had thought Theresa May had turned a page and that 2018 could not be worse than the preceding 12 months.

The assessment was premature. Unless she shows greater poise and purpose – and is better served by those advising her Government – questions of leadership will quickly resurface. Mrs May has been warned. After all, I used this slot early last year to caution against a snap election.

If only she had listened.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk