‘They are not as strong as they thought they were,’ one Whitehall source remarked to me on Monday night as he contemplated the fallout from Theresa May’s attempt to reshuffle the cabinet. No. 10 had come to believe that a successful Budget and ‘sufficient progress’ in the Brexit talks meant that much of May’s political authority had been restored. This emboldened them to think that she could now pull off a proper reshuffle, something Gavin Williamson had regularly cautioned against when he was chief whip.
But a reshuffle that was meant to confirm the Prime Minister’s return to political health has ended up highlighting her three biggest weaknesses. The first thing it showed was that she has not regained her political authority. Moving ministers around is always tricky unless it is done as a prime minister’s first act or after a landslide election victory. But May faced remarkable levels of resistance, despite choosing to leave all the holders of great offices of state in place. In the end, the Health Secretary stayed put, even though May’s initial plan had been to move him, and the Education Secretary resigned rather than become Welfare Secretary.
The result is that every Secretary of State who would like to defy May on some issue will now feel more confident. The Prime Minister is, clearly, not an irresistible force.
The reshuffle has also raised questions about the competence of May’s operation. For the party’s official Twitter account to start the reshuffle by inaccurately tweeting that Chris Grayling was party chairman was a spectacular fail. But almost as bad was No. 10 failing to establish whether Jeremy Hunt was prepared to move before he came in to see Mrs May. One ally of the Health Secretary tells me he had no contact from Downing Street all last weekend.