World News

In Britain, Attempt to Reshuffle Cabinet Betrays May’s Weak Hand

Posted January 8, 2018 7:28 p.m. EST
Updated January 8, 2018 7:33 p.m. EST

LONDON — A Cabinet reshuffle intended to demonstrate Prime Minister Theresa May’s newfound authority seemed to do the opposite Monday, as she left all her top ministers in place.

The most senior figures in May’s Cabinet, including the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, kept their jobs in the shake-up, despite calls for them to be moved or dismissed.

Three other ministers resisted efforts to shift them to other positions, with two of them, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Business Secretary Greg Clark, winning their battles to remain in their posts.

That underscored May’s lack of room for maneuvering, seven months after a general election in which she lost her parliamentary majority, damaging her authority, and as difficult negotiations loom over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Worse, May’s reshuffle got off to an unfortunate start when her Conservative Party’s Twitter account announced the appointment of Chris Grayling as party chairman. The post, which proved inaccurate, was deleted, but not before it had been spotted by political reporters.

A later announcement of Brandon Lewis’ appointment as the new Conservative Party chairman, replacing Patrick McLoughlin, was not problem free, either. The original post on Twitter misspelled his new title, minister without portfolio, leaving out the “t” in “portfolio.”

The Cabinet changes are May’s first major effort to refashion her top team, after months of speculation about her future. Those questions only increased after May’s disastrous performance at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October and the subsequent resignation of three Cabinet ministers.

Even though May’s de facto deputy, Damian Green, stepped down last month after he was found to have misled the public about pornography found on his work computer, she appeared to be in a stronger position now than at any time since the general election in June.

The prime minister reached an agreement with EU leaders in December to proceed with talks on trade relations after Britain leaves, a process known as Brexit that is scheduled to take effect in March 2019. The accord was achieved without reawakening acute tensions in the Conservative Party over the extent of the post-Brexit ties between Britain and the bloc.

But the party’s internal truce is fragile, and May knows that her position remains vulnerable. Her Cabinet has been carefully constructed to balance those, like Hammond, who want to keep a close economic relationship with the European Union, and those, like Johnson, who argue for a cleaner break.

A desire to maintain that equilibrium partly explains why the two men remained in their posts, despite criticism of Johnson’s performance as foreign secretary and calls from hard-line Brexit supporters for Hammond to be fired.

May’s reluctance to risk moving any senior colleagues, and the botched announcement of the new Conservative Party chairman, were described by some commentators in the British news media as the “day of the blunt knives.” The headline on the website of the right-leaning Daily Telegraph described the reshuffle as “chaotic.” The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, noted the slow pace of announcements and made an ironic reference to May’s widely mocked statement, made after modifying plans for social care during last year’s election campaign, that “nothing has changed.”

“You might almost say, almost ‘nothing has changed’ (so far),” Kuenssberg wrote on Twitter about the reshuffle.

One minister who did leave the Cabinet was James Brokenshire, who resigned as secretary of state for Northern Ireland for medical reasons, telling May in a letter that he needed surgery to remove a small lesion in his right lung.

A more problematic departure was that of Justine Greening, who resigned as education secretary after refusing to be moved to another job, according to British news media reports.

Meanwhile, Green’s position at the Cabinet Office was filled by David Lidington, who moved from his job as justice secretary.

May wanted to try to use the reshuffle to try to freshen the government’s approach to domestic issues, after nearly a year of obsessive focus on Brexit.

But most analysts believe that she is likely to be stymied in that objective. Lacking a parliamentary majority, May must often rely on 10 lawmakers from the ultraconservative Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to push legislation through. That weakness was implicitly acknowledged Sunday, when May said that she had abandoned plans for a vote on whether to reverse a ban on the divisive issue of fox hunting.

And, despite her intention to focus more on domestic matters, the next 12 months are likely to be dominated by negotiations with the European Union, leaving ministers with little time or energy to tackle issues like health, transportation and housing. The withdrawal negotiations are likely to be tougher than those that took place in 2017, which focused on issues like Britain’s outstanding financial commitments to the bloc, the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border.

The next round of talks, involving efforts to secure a transition period after Britain leaves the bloc and to map future trade ties, could further destabilize May’s government.