May's inspired reshuffle is all about creating a cabinet new prime minister can control
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
Until a few days ago, it looked like Brexit was going to be defined and implemented by its enemies. The team that led Britain out of the European Union had vanished; their careers destroyed by their uselessness at the basic art of parliamentary plotting. Theresa May walked into No 10 unopposed, backed by allies of George Osborne.
The bookmakers had him down as favourite to be the next Foreign Secretary, and many MPs feared that a deal had been done - that the most momentous vote in British history would be followed by very little change at the top.
How different it all looks now. Mr Osborne has been sacked and Boris Johnson has been appointed to the job instead. It's an inspired appointment, a Foreign Secretary able to explain to the world the positive vision of Brexit that he so successfully advocated during the referendum campaign. He'll be able to tell a story of an optimistic country, tugging at the leash fitted upon it by the EU. A nation that welcomes immigrants, but would quite like the ability to control immigration. Britain needs a global salesman, who makes an impact when he visits. And no one has ever accused Mr Johnson (inset) of failing to do that.
The EU's diplomats may well want to snarl at Britain in the negotiations, when they start. So Ms May has sent them David Davis, the most cheerful bruiser in the House of Commons, as the head Brexit negotiator. Meanwhile, the task of striking new trade deals with faraway nations will not be held by a minister (like Philip Hammond) who never really thought it possible, but by the globally-minded Brexiteer Liam Fox. Ms May might never be able to speak with conviction about the opportunities of Brexit, but she has just hired three cabinet members who can.
She might not actually need all three, but their recruitment does wonders for party unity.
On Wednesday night, champagne bottles were on the tables of the House of Commons terrace as Eurosceptics toasted Ms May's premiership. They have got their wish: and it amazes them as much as everyone else.
Yesterday morning, there was another, more sombre, gathering: David Cameron and George Osborne sitting outside a Notting Hill cafe reading the newspapers and consoling each other. Both will bitterly regret ever having seen Ms May as the continuity candidate. She routed the Tory modernisers yesterday, sacking anyone who was seen to be associated with the project, regardless of their position on Brexit.
Michael Gove is gone, as are ministers who supported his doomed leadership bid.
It's no secret that Ms May had her doubts about Tory modernisation, seeing it as a posh boy's project aimed at making the party more acceptable at London dinner parties. But it's hard to reconcile this caricature with the fruits of the Cameron project: falling inequality, the incomes of the lowest-paid rising the most, a revolution in state schools helping the poorest. Even for those who have never been quite sold on Tory modernisation (myself included), the extent of yesterday's bloodletting is alarming.
To look at the casualties of Ms May's reshuffle, it's as if she spent years in cabinet meetings looking around the table and dreaming about the day she'd dispatch this crop of privately educated young Tories back to Notting Hill to cry into their cappuccinos. All this would make more sense if Ms May wanted somehow to root out their ideology, in the same way that Gordon Brown's allies sought a purge of the Blairites. But from what she has said, she intends to build on what Cameron sought to achieve: focusing Conservatism towards the poorest, and winning Labour voters by emphasising the progressive nature of the Tory mission.
They share the same aim, but the means are starting to look rather different. The emergence of a department for "industrial strategy" suggests that Ms May is about to attempt a policy rather more interventionist than the Cameroons would have tolerated. This suggests Ed Miliband-style plans to boss companies around, and tell them who they should have on their boards.
So if she were to depart from the Cameron approach and start reviving Seventies ideas about having workers sit on company boards, who in her cabinet would protest? Anyone on the Tory Right has been kept well away from anything to do with business or economics.
Her reshuffle seems to have eliminated anything that might grow into a power base. The modernisers are more likely to quit politics altogether than rebel against her in parliament. Boris will be off charming Canadian talk-show hosts or rugby-tackling Japanese schoolboys. The Tory Right will be chewing on the bone of Brexit.
And this is where her reshuffle starts to make the most sense. It's not that the new prime minister loves Brexiteers and dislikes posh boys. She just likes a government that she can manage. She doesn't like surprises or arguments, and is suspicious of ministers with too many grand ideas - and the Tory modernisers specialised in those.
All of these modernising ideas certainly had their uses: they appear to have formed about three quarters of Theresa May's agenda. But she is now out to complete David Cameron's mission of "one nation" Toryism without the help of Mr Cameron, or any of his friends.