When Parliament resumed after the Christmas break, Theresa May’s political position was getting slowly weaker, but it was not plummeting downwards. As I argued yesterday, the main reason for her declining authority was that she had not been able to impose agreement about what kind of Brexit the U.K. should adopt (one closely aligned to EU regulation and policy, or one free to pursue competing approaches) on the Cabinet. As a consequence Britain seemed to be reacting feebly to aggressive demands from Brussels and drifting towards a Brexit transition-without-end. But that was not her sole problem. There was also a widespread feeling among Tory MPs that since the disappointing election result, which was blamed in part on a manifesto that alienated older Tory voters with proposals like a “dementia tax” to fund social care for the elderly, the May government had been too nervous to lay out a new agenda for popular reforms. It was policy-shy. What kept it going — and May as prime minister — was the fear that any change would be for the worse, increasing instability, making the Tories look irresponsible, dooming Brexit, opening the door to a left-wing Jeremy Corbyn government, and risking an unknown leader with no better skills than May.
Unwilling or unable to risk these outcomes, the Tory party embarked on a bout of procrastination known as waiting for the reshuffle — the periodic culling of some ministers, the promotion of others, and the inevitable disappointment of most ambitious backbenchers who don’t get the call from Downing Street. Prime ministers always hope that a reshuffle will refresh their tired administrations; it almost never does. And on this occasion it spectacularly backfired. On the day after, it was described by Paul Goodman, editor of the influential Tory website Conservative Home, as “the worst-managed reshuffle in recent history — and perhaps ever.” It’s hard to disagree with this verdict. The reshuffle had so many mishaps — for instance, the wrong Tory party chairman was announced by a tweet and had to be renamed minutes later — that immediate impressions were those of a Ray Cooney Whitehall farce (the Whitehall theatre in London is famous for staging farces, and Cooney’s most famous line is: “Sergeant, arrest some of these vicars”).
Consider, first, the reshuffle’s apparent aims: to restore the prime minister’s ailing authority; to give new life to a government that was said to be looking “male, pale, and stale;” and to set a clear direction for government policy on Brexit. How far were they achieved?
Restoring May’s prime-ministerial authority was not merely not achieved by the reshuffle, it was further undermined. She wanted to move three ministers. Two of them refused to go where she wanted; one fought successfully to stay in place; one resigned rather than move; and one was kept in place because he was meant to be replaced by the minister who stayed put. Several hours in a crowded day were spent in long negotiations between the prime minister and her insubordinates. May had already alienated ministers as senior as Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson by letting it be known (through off-the-record briefings) that she intended to replace them and then finding it politically impossible to do so. The same thing happened on this occasion too. So several other ministers whose feathers have been reshuffled by hostile briefings (even if they themselves have not) today survive to sit with Hammond and Boris around the Cabinet table. One ambitious former minister resigned herself huffily onto the backbenches rather than accept the transfer suggested by May, and she is now expected to join the active Remainer claque already giving May constant irritation. Add in a few minor but embarrassing flubs and May looks not only weaker but also unlucky.
Also, the idea that the new lineup of ambitious junior Tories looks “more like Britain” because it’s multiethnic or includes more women is silly. It looks like what it is — and what its Labour counterparts are — a cross-section of the college-educated professional political class that is actually quite unpopular with people outside politics. As for youth appeal, these rising political stars are young only in a political context. It is unlikely many undecided young voters will see fortyish “suits” as role models or thrill to their sex appeal. Their votes will go to the party that best represents their interests and their cultural values and that can claim some real success in policies on the economy, housing, and Brexit. But advancing new policies on such issues courts controversy and unpopularity until they succeed. And that usually takes time. This sort of political “rebranding” exercise is an attempt to leap over these problems and to distract from them. In the end it succeeds only if the policies succeed.
The idea that the new lineup of ambitious junior Tories looks ‘more like Britain’ because it’s multiethnic or includes more women is silly.
But the overwhelming reason the reshuffle failed is that May was unable or unwilling to fire or demote the senior ministers — Hammond, Johnson, Gove, Rudd, and Davis — who between them represent the balance between Leave and Remain inside the Cabinet. To do that would have meant coming down clearly on one side or the other of the Brexit divide. And because of May’s weakness, she has so far had to perpetuate the present stalemate. Until she can dispense with either Remainers such as Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd or Leavers such as Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, she is destined to waver between the two poles of hard and soft Brexit until somehow events decide for her. And because May couldn’t remove people at the top, she had a very limited ability to promote or bring in people from lower down. Thus the reshuffle was a dead duck.
How might May overcome her weakness and break the deadlock? To answer that, we have to look at the highly unusual parliamentary arithmetic she has to deal with. In the House of Commons the majority of MPs were and usually are Remain sympathizers — that’s all Scottish Nationalists, all Lib Dems, almost all Labour MPs (minus about five), a handful of Odds & Sods, and a minority of Tories. Their hands are ever-so-slightly tied, however, by the fact that Labour and Tory MPs fought the election on manifestos that pledged their support to quite hard forms of Brexit (i.e., leaving both the single market and the customs union). Of course, many are wriggling out of these commitments, but not without embarrassment and electoral risk. A further constraint is that Jeremy Corbyn and his immediate advisers seem to be closet Remainers and willing to demand Labour votes for key Brexit votes, if only to avoid taking responsibility for the betrayal of the referendum. All of which means that there’s a natural majority for Remain in the Commons — and a much larger one in the House of Lords.
Now consider the arithmetic of the Tory benches. The Tory party as a whole is a Leaver party — from voters to activists to MPs to ministers to the Cabinet — led for most of the last 50 years by Remain leaderships. Leaders were able to secure Remain policies by sensitive use of party discipline and loyalty but this broke down in the run-up to the referendum when Leavers first compelled David Cameron to hold a referendum and then rebelled against the party line to support Leave. Once Brexit passed in the referendum, not only did the Tory government, under both Cameron and May, accept the result as official policy but most Tory MPs emerged as having been Leavers all along. It’s hard to estimate the exact balance of opinion in the party, but having spoken to several MPs and observers, I would estimate that probably around 70 percent of Tory MPs are Leavers and maybe 30 percent for Remain. That said, the balance is more favorable to Remain in the “payroll vote” of junior ministers, while in the Cabinet there is a clear Remain majority — Remain today meaning preference for a “soft Brexit” with maximum regulatory alignment between Britain and the EU.
Only about 20 of the Tory Remainers, however, are “Ultras” or “Bitter-Enders” who would vote to prevent Brexit even if it meant bringing down the government or losing an election, and they are partly offset by the five or six Labour (plus one Lib Dem) Brexiteers. In the light of this knife-edge arithmetic, May has to maneuver to ensure that she maintains sufficient party discipline and sufficient cohesion with her Democratic Unionist allies to win key votes between now and March 2019. That explains her current reluctance to cut the Gordian Knot. But she will have to do something soon or risk losing everything.
If a preference for soft Brexit is to May’s own taste, it would be easy to understand why. Establishment bodies in Britain — from the Treasury to the CBI to the BBC — have been waging a fierce public-relations war in favor of it. A cautious politician such as May might well decide that it would be safer to join with the Cabinet, the establishment, and a cross-party majority of all MPs to push through a minimalist Brexit. And some of her choices seem to point in that direction. In the reshuffle she filled the one vacant senior ministry — that of deputy prime minister, opened up by the resignation of Damian Green — by appointing Remainer David Liddington to it. At the same time she failed to bring Parliament’s leading Leaver, Jacob Rees-Mogg, into the government even though he is the favorite to succeed her among ordinary party members.
A cautious politician such as May might well decide that it would be safer to join with the Cabinet, the establishment, and a cross-party majority of all MPs to push through a minimalist Brexit.
Legislative clues to how her mind is working are that ministers, while declaring at regular intervals that they will leave the EU customs union, are passing a measure that would allow them to enter it without a further parliamentary vote while ditching another measure that would provide modest preparatory finance for the “no deal” Brexit that they claim is their fallback option if talks fail. And the entire atmosphere of the Brexit negotiations, examined in yesterday’s article, has been a timid and defeatist one of treating Britain’s link with the EU as its single most important relationship (which it isn’t), thus implying that we should avoid moving too far from its economic and regulatory structures.
That approach, however, would put her seriously at odds with most Tories in Parliament and the country. An article by Matthew Goodwin in the Daily Telegraph (here) cites recent polls to show that “last month just 3 per cent of Conservative voters told YouGov that they think the government should reconsider its aims and seek a ‘softer’ Brexit.” Other figures show substantial majorities among Tory voters opposing U.K. membership of the single market, continuing jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and a transitional period before full Brexit longer than a year — all features of even a moderately soft Brexit. If May were to pursue a policy running counter to these rooted opinions of Tory voters, she risks an electoral debacle when the first post-Brexit election is held.
And Nemesis would arrive in Parliament long before an election if she were to dilute her Brexit commitments further. Most Tories have put up with a lackluster leader since the last election because they see her as someone who can deliver Brexit and they don’t want to put that at risk. If they were once to doubt that, the trapdoor could open beneath her with surprising speed.
As she arrives back to Downing Street and her restive party, therefore, Mrs. May has to do something — but it can’t be just something, and it certainly can’t be a move that confirms the recent drift to what might be called a Negative Brexit. It must embody a toughening of the British negotiating position with Brussels and a small but significant reshuffle of senior ministers to strengthen Leave representation in the Cabinet and her own control of her administration and Whitehall. At present she is being pushed by senior ministers and officials into a conflict with more than half her party in the House of Commons. It is a conflict that could destroy both sides. Infighting in the government is barely under control and party discipline in the Commons is fraying at the edges. A meaningful reshuffle has to happen. For if May doesn’t reshuffle her ministry, the Tory party will reshuffle her.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.