The dust is starting to settle following what must surely be one of the most tumultuous months in British politics.
In the wake of the Brexit vote and subsequent Conservative Leadership election, Prime Minister May has just finished putting together her new Ministerial team. What can we learn from the shape of the new Government? And what should we be looking out for in future?
Too much blood?
The scale of Ministerial sackings was well beyond what had been anticipated. It was not just taking a broom for a clean sweep of the Government, but more a case of scouring Whitehall out with bleach. The Notting Hill set was decimated, with supporters of Cameron, Osborne and Gove all losing jobs, and other, sometime long-serving, Ministers also being culled. In all, nearly 30 Cabinet and junior Ministers lost their jobs – that is around one quarter of the entire payroll vote. The desire for a fresh start was to be expected as a new PM stamps their authority. However, there is also a sense amongst the Tory benches of scores being settled, certainly in the case of Gove and his backers, and the manner in which Osborne departed. With a Commons majority of just 16, time will tell whether so many sackings will mean trouble in future votes. The newly appointed Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, may have a job on his hands.
Social mobility to the fore
After much speculation that Theresa May’s Government would mean a large increase in the number of female Ministers, this proved not to be the case. Overall, the gender balance of the Cabinet remained roughly as it had been. Instead, the major theme of the PM’s reshuffle was social mobility, delivering immediately on the speech she gave before entering No. 10. May – Grammar school educated herself – has strong beliefs on this subject, and her co-Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, is a strong advocate for action, not words, when it comes to improving social mobility. The new Cabinet now contains more state-educated Ministers than any since Clement Atlee was PM and it is a staggering fact that Justine Greening becomes the first Education Secretary to go to a comprehensive school. Greening has also been a long-time campaigner for improved social mobility in the UK and the placement of Robert Halfon in her education team – one of the first proponents of ‘blue collar conservatism’ – shows that this agenda will be pursued rigorously.
Battle of the Brexiteers
The appointments of three leading Leave campaigners – Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, Liam Fox as Secretary of State for International Trade and David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (with the ironic acronym of SEE-U) – demonstrates in no uncertain terms that Brexit will absolutely mean Brexit. However, the three men have strong personalities (some might even say big egos) and how they will work together will be interesting, to say the least. And just for added spice, Sir Alan Duncan – who once described Johnson as ‘Silvio Borisconi’ – has been thrown into the mix as Minister at the FCO. Another key point to note here is that Brexit touches upon every Department in Government. How will Cabinet Ministers, and especially senior civil servants, cope with David Davis having to deal with issues on their turf?
An active focus on growth
With Liam Fox overseeing International Trade, the Department of Business has morphed somewhat, losing control of universities to the Education Department, gaining control of energy policy, and with ‘Industrial Strategy’ also finding its way into the Department’s title. Greg Clark seems to have been given a much more activist brief and the development of any industrial strategy will be a radical departure from the Cameron regime. Will we see an actual, physical strategy produced, consulted upon and implemented? And how will businesses feed into that? Or is this new title just a nod to the way the Department is likely to operate in future?
Let’s get building?
The appointment of the former Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, to be Communities Secretary, might conceivably be expected to lead to a change in the Department’s focus. Will it lead to a more growth-oriented, development-driven approach to planning and housing policy, for instance? Certainly a more co-ordinated approach, and much greater effort, will be required to generate the number of houses the Government keeps saying it wants to see delivered. The new Housing and Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell, will have a job on his hands to balance the demands for more housing – which is tied closely to the PM’s focus on social mobility – with those who wish to see the minimal changes to the planning system. Barwell used his first outing at the Despatch Box to confirm that he was against any encroachment on the Green Belt. So will there be loosening of other policies in future?
First 100 days?
We can expect to see May following up the vote on Trident with a flurry of activity designed to show her getting on with the job and contrasting that with the Labour Party’s ongoing self-immolation. She will probably also continue to park tanks on their lawn. The September parliamentary sitting, the Party Conference, and the run up to the Autumn Statement, are all likely to contain major policy announcements. The social mobility theme will be milked dry; ‘good news’ stories about possible free trade deals will proliferate to show progress post-Brexit; and issues that became bogged down under Cameron will be unclogged with great fanfare – expect an announcement on a new runway at last.
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