Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 60, January 2018 - Brexit and the Government reshuffle

Mrs May’s government reshuffle of January 7th to 9th was ‘briefed’ in advance by 10 Downing Street as a major relaunch of her administration. It may be that the considerable raft of junior ministerial appointments will indeed have long run consequences, but the reshuffle at the most important level – the Cabinet – was widely derided. Indeed, all that exercise demonstrated was something already well established: the Prime Minister’s position is very weak, probably the weakest of any prime minister in living memory. She was not strong enough to shift the most powerful people in the Cabinet, notably the Foreign Secretary or the Chancellor, despite the fact that it is widely known that in advance of the disastrous electoral campaign of 2017 she had intended to dispose of the Chancellor in particular.

But even more extraordinary was her inability to move Cabinet Ministers of lesser stature. The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, flatly refused to move to another post, in effect daring Mrs May to force his resignation – something she could not contemplate. The Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who was widely reported to be at odds with the Prime Minister over education issues like the introduction of new grammar schools, and wider issues to do with the Brexit negotiations, likewise flatly refused to move, and at the end of a three hour period of discussion and contemplation within Downing Street itself, did indeed resign from the government.

This weakness is the product of two factors: the disastrous election result of June 2017, and the chronically divided state of the government over the issue of Brexit. Mrs May’s Parliamentary majority dangles by a thread – and that thread is controlled by the ten MPs of the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP supported ‘leave’ in the 2016 referendum campaign, and in the Brexit negotiations has dedicated itself to ensuring that nothing in the Brexit settlement endangers the Union between Ulster and the rest of the United Kingdom.

This explains one of the most painful moments so far of Mrs May’s weak premiership: the moment on 5 December when she was humiliatingly forced to abandon an agreement with the EU over the nature of the post Brexit Irish border because it was unacceptable to the DUP. An agreement was worked out a few days later, but only by in effect postponing the issue of the nature of the border. The thunderous intervention by the DUP dramatically underlined the Prime Minister’s weakness: she can neither command a stable majority in the House of Commons, nor supremacy over her own divided cabinet. The successful insubordination of Mr Hunt and Ms Greening means that, faced with any serious disagreement with any member of the Cabinet in the future, Mrs May now has only two options: to fire the Minister in question, or to back down. If Mrs May survives under these conditions it will be a first in the modern history of the British core executive. Not even Gordon Brown in the depths of his ill-fated tenure in Downing Street was so embattled.