10 January 2018

Nothing can undo May’s reputation for incompetence


Like sailors, the People of the Bubble are a superstitious lot prone to seeing omens everywhere. Signs of good fortune and, more importantly, ill-luck abound. The Westminster village is a little world unto itself, not at all unlike the wooden world of a sailing vessel. And just as sailors would pin responsibility for their misfortunes on an unwitting Jonah, so residents of the political bubble appreciate that, fairly or not, someone has to carry the can for calamitous events.

In this instance, at this period in our political history, that person is the Prime Minister. Theresa May is a glum-bucket leader, not a lucky general. Fairly or not, that is the reputation she now endures. Once earned, this kind of stain cannot be washed away. The dye, if you will, is set and nothing can unset it.

All of which made this week’s reshuffle an ill-starred business before it even began. Given her reputation for haplessness – not all of it her fault, as a collapsing conference stage backdrop should make clear – there was little chance of May receiving much credit for her cabinet changes. But then, how could anyone be enthused by a reshuffle in which none of the great offices of state changed hands? And since David Davis and Liam Fox – the Brexit chuckle brothers – were also deemed untouchable, the opportunities for putting a genuinely new face on this government were limited from the outset.

In which case, why bother? Not for the first time the Prime Minister set herself up to fail. But even with these low expectations, she still managed to underwhelm. Notionally, a cabinet reshuffle is supposed to demonstrate prime ministerial strength; this one did not, thereby confirming the wounded-duck nature of May’s administration. If the Prime Minister wants to move the Health Secretary, she moves him. That’s the way the game is supposed to be played. But, no, Jeremy Hunt remains at Health and, following some lengthy period of Downing Street horse-trading, takes on responsibility for social care too. A man who was supposed to be moved into a smaller brief has instead emerged with a larger one. Make sense of that, if you can.

Then again, it has been evident for some time that this is a backwards government in which the Prime Minister serves at the pleasure of her ministers not the other way round. So many are unsackable or even unmovable that the impression given is of a prime minister held hostage by her own cabinet.

Of course, Theresa May is not the first prime minister to oversee a shambolic reshuffle. But when Tony Blair called the wrong MP or forgot to offer another candidate a job at all, it could be laughed off as just a piece of political misadventure. There was nothing serious about it and nothing, more importantly, confirmatory about it. Because Blair, for all his troubles, was not seen as a lamentable or sub-standard prime minister. May, alas, is. And, again, a reputation for calamity is not something easily shaken-off.

In truth, cabinet reshuffles take place too frequently anyway. There is something to be said for continuity in government even when that continuity is of the merely average, dutiful, managerial, kind. The nation will not be stirred by the rise of David Gauke or Damian Hinds, however worthy their promotions may be.

Perception kills in politics and the perception is that this is an exhausted government already. Brexit consumes its entire bandwidth and the public is, I suspect, increasingly hacked-off with Brexit. Not because they would like this or that kind of Brexit but simply because they would like it to be done as quickly and cleanly as possible.

“Thole” is a good Scots word meaning to suffer and endure endless vexations that cannot, however much we might wish it, be escaped. The people are having to thole Brexit and they are having to thole the government charged with delivering it too.

Given this, it is possible to construct a story in which May receives some credit for keeping going. Head down, beating into the gale, she does her best. But it’s not enough, not least because it seems quite evident that her government is not capable of addressing many of the matters that urgently need addressing.

The irony is that the disastrous Tory manifesto, which almost drowned the Prime Minister, did at least focus on some of the long-term challenges facing the country. But it did so in such a worthy, even lugubrious, fashion that it seemed to offer little more than years of cold porridge to an electorate that, nearly a decade after the financial crash, desperately craves something more exciting.

It would be preposterous for May to suddenly start talking like the pre-crash David Cameron. If she said it was time for sunshine to win the day there’d be a sudden run on umbrellas. Nevertheless, the country needs cheering up. Alas, there is no prospect of that happening until, at the earliest, Brexit is behind us. Only then will there be a chance for a fresh start. And until then, Jonah remains at the helm.

Alex Massie is a political commentator