What does the reshuffle say about the Prime Minister’s standing?

Things could have been so different. Just days ago, rumours were flying around Whitehall about the big reshuffle. A chance for Theresa May to further strengthen her position by replacing those in her Cabinet she has tired of, or only placed there out of obligation to the Leave campaign. What a difference a day makes.

Having lost a Cabinet Minister in last week’s brutal election when Ben Gummer lost his Ipswich seat, Theresa May was forced to perform the most minor of shuffles to her Cabinet. It was undeniably muted. Senior positions were confirmed overnight on Friday, no walking up Downing Street, no nervous smiles for the cameras, and several of those being reappointed refused the Downing Street summons altogether and received their instructions remotely. Reshuffles are usually used as demonstrations of power – the strength to hire and fire at will. This was a demonstration of the complete lack of authority Theresa May now has, and the lack of confidence with which she wields it. Her position is so dire that she cannot even contemplate sacking those her team were briefing against a few days ago, for fear of creating even more aggressors on the backbenches.

The senior leadership team of Philip Hammond (Treasury), Amber Rudd (Home Office), David Davies (Exiting the EU) and Michael Fallon (Defence) remains unchanged, providing stability for now. This core team, several of whom were expecting to lose their jobs in different circumstances, are now the main source of support for the Prime Minister. Philip Hammond’s acceptance was said to be subject to the agreement to place jobs and the economy as the number one priority for negotiations with Brussels, usurping the Prime Minister’s preference for migrant numbers. Their influence will be significant for as long as she remains in power, and these departments’ PPSs and advisers will play a key role.

Theresa May has called in her own personal reinforcements through Damian Green’s appointment, where he can offer both personal and proximate support from the Cabinet Office next door. The office has always operated as a junior partner to No10 and other departments, but Green’s elevation to First Secretary of State will undoubtedly see him join the senior ranks in advising the Prime Minister on vital issues.

The final addition to the Prime Minister’s support network is Gavin Barwell, former MP for Croydon Central, and 10 Downing Street’s new Chief of Staff. Intelligent, measured and popular within the parliamentary party, Barwell’s appointment is intended to reassure MPs smarting from losing colleagues and significant majorities in last week’s election. He is a completely different beast to Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, his predecessors in the role. Together with Gavin Williamson (Chief Whip), the two Gavins will provide political intelligence and cover to the Prime Minister as she seeks to stabilise the Conservative ship.

There has been much speculation that the promotion of Damian Green (First Secretary of State and Cabinet Office), David Gauke (Work and Pensions) and David Lidington (Justice), three prominent Remainers, will raise the chances of a softer Brexit. The return of Michael Gove (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), however, balances this out and the two sides of the Brexit spectrum are now fairly evenly represented around the Cabinet table. My colleague, Joey Jones, sets out in more detail what a ‘softer Brexit’ may mean in practice here. The promotion of Brandon Lewis (Immigration Minister) to attending Cabinet proves how vitally important the issue of immigration is going to be in the coming months, and he will be a central figure to companies seeking to protect their own immigrant workforces.

The fact remains that no formal Cabinet position on Brexit has been broached, let alone confirmed and the prospect of negotiations with Brussels beginning as planned next week is rapidly receding.

Continuity can be seen across the business remits with Hammond, Greg Clark (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) and Liam Fox (International Trade) all maintaining their positions. The difficulty for this group is that their departments have spent the last 10 months avidly listening to the concerns of businesses, but they are still no closer to being able to offer a response. The uncertainty around the government’s position on pretty much everything will only further hinder business’s ability to plan, invest and employ, and business leaders need to take every opportunity to make this clear to the government.

The appointment of Michael Gove (Environment) proves that while Theresa May still has a sense of humour, she has no strength left within the party. Gove is a challenging adversary (as Theresa May experienced at the Home Office) and his invitation to rejoin the government is further evidence of her need to neutralise as many threats as possible. Seen as the least significant job within the Cabinet, the DEFRA brief will prove fundamental to Brexit negotiation.

The delay of the Queen’s Speech is proof that this government do not know what or how to prioritise, following the resounding rejection of their manifesto by the electorate. Potential areas of focus could include reasonably uncontroversial measures to protect and promote mental health, housing and technical education. The more controversial manifesto commitments around social care, school lunches and the winter fuel allowance will be parked for the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen whether policies both parties have historically supported, such as energy price regulation, could garner sufficient cross party support to make it into law.