Frank Browne: Theresa May is not for dawdling
The new Tory leader knows prime ministers are seldom stronger than when first elected to office.
Our new prime minister recently put the final touches to one of the most brutal reshuffles for half a century. Political commentators have been describing it as the end of the ‘Notting Hill set’, but what does it suggest about the direction and tone a May government might take?
I think this reshuffle was driven by three key factors. At 59 Mrs May is not a woman who’s going to dawdle, I suspect that she’s aware that she’s got a limited shelf life and having seen at first-hand how Blair took four years to really get going she’s keen to avoid wasting time. She also knows that Prime Ministers are seldom stronger than when first elected or fresh from winning a general election.
I have no doubt Theresa will restore a certain dignity to the office after a period of more casual premiers. We should expect a return of a premier more in the chief executive mould with less of a chairman of the board approach that we saw under Blair and Cameron.
The final factor is the issue of Brexit. Mrs May will be very conscious that her premiership will be defined by the deal she is able to negotiate and how the country is positioned to exploit the opportunities available post Brexit.
Long distrusted by the right wing of the Conservative Party, the appointment of David Davis and Liam Fox to lead on the Brexit negotiations and deliver international trade deals should provide reassurance and substance to the PM’s statement that Brexit means Brexit.
Mr Johnson’s appointment to an emasculated FCO is less straight forward. Shorn of its role in leading on European issues and international trade, one is almost left asking what the purpose of the FCO is at the moment. I suspect part of the motivation is a recognition that Boris remains a potent leadership rival, at 53 he still has a chance of getting the keys to No 10 after Theresa so where better to keep him than out of the country. As one commentator quipped it’s quite difficult mounting a leadership campaign when you’re half way round the world flying back from the Philippines.
So what of the post of Chancellor? Philip Hammond’s appointment reinforces the thrust of a return to ‘grown up politics’ and will see the welcome return of a full time chancellor focused on the enormous financial challenges facing this country, some exacerbated by Osborne and many simply not tackled.
To drive forward the social justice programme outlined in her first speech but trailed a number of times over the last three or four years Theresa has tasked the quartet of Rudd, Green, Truss and Greening to deliver an ambitious and difficult agenda at a time when budgets are being squeezed.
Of the departures I am genuinely sorry to see Gove go, he was one of the few original thinkers of the previous government and responsible for laying the foundations of genuine reform for our penal system. I wonder if he was regarded a bit too toxic for Mrs May who has never had an easy relationship with him? I hope that after a cooling off on the backbenches he is brought back to the front bench to help deliver the very challenging social programme outlined as a key priority.
So as a momentous week draws to a close, Theresa has a radically reshaped Cabinet facing some really tough challenges but with some unhappy former members on the backbench. With a majority of just 17, she only needs nine individuals to threaten to not play ball to scupper the government legislative program.
I suspect the Prime Minister will test the water fairly early on and if she finds her program being blocked by bolshie backbenchers, don’t be surprised if we get an early General Election.
Frank Browne is an Associate Consultant at Alpaca Communications, former leader of Wokingham Borough Council and has known Theresa May for over 20 years, twice acting as her election aide.
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