George Pascoe-Watson: There are no wallflowers in the cabinet - and that's how the PM likes it

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 13 December 2016 in Opinion

Theresa May's team have been especially impressed by Brexit secretary David Davis in recent weeks.

 --- THE INSIDER ---

Theresa May knows better than anyone the perils of taking power with a government that was thrown together with no time to gel.

Relationships are still forming. Charismatic cabinet ministers and advisers with strong differences of opinion on Brexit are still learning their departmental briefs. Business leaders from different sectors are issuing demands for the settlement that will allow them to prosper in a post-EU world. And the media is legitimately filling the vacuum created by “no running commentary” with an amplification of every up and down, in and out.

Add to this toxic mix the fact that Mrs May has decided on a return to 'traditional' government where Cabinet ministers are allowed to speak their mind. And the outcome is what appears to be a pretty fevered atmosphere as the Premier and her team prepare for their first Christmas in Number 10. But behind the doors, despite the noise, there’s a steely resolve to focus on what matters, people who work there say.

Nothing matters more to the PM than meeting her deadline for triggering article 50, March 31. David Davis, the Cabinet minister for Exiting the EU, is top of the PM’s form as we break for Christmas, I understand. The Premier and her team are hugely impressed by his open-minded approach, and his can-do attitude.

Many feared he would be ideologicially driven, unable to come to a pragmatic position taken into consideration everyones’ needs. Not so. Mr Davis has forged a strong working relationship with Chancellor Philip Hammond. Others have noted his deep relationships across the House which are allowing him to forge alliances and make difficult conversations easier. These alliances will be crucial as the entire process moves into the Commons and Lords for what will inevitably turn into a Parliamentary bloodbath.

Mr Davis has been admired across the House his entire political career. Anyone who could be shadow home secretary one day, and Shami Chakrabarti’s best friend the next, is nothing if not open-minded.

The vacuum created by “no running commentary” means that the media must turn whatever smoke signals they see into hard news. And any noises which sound remotely favourable to one sector or another looks like it’s a done deal.

The truth is Mrs May’s top team are genuinely out and about consulting. For now, they haven’t reached any hard and fast conclusions about the final package on offer. But every cough and spit that emerges from their meetings is turned into a “done deal” and reported as such.

One figure close to the PM says: “You’d be worried if ministers weren’t meeting industry. It would be quite wrong for us all to sit in a darkened room and consult one another. We need to understand from industry what is needed. But just because we’ve met one group and listened to their needs, doesn’t mean to say we incorporate that into our final negotiating position.”

An army of lawyers has already been hired to work on the Parliamentary drafting of the Great Repeal Bill, which will be in the Queen’s Speech next May. A decision is yet to be taken on whether to import all existing EU law into UK law, then take the knife to bits we no longer want – or do this process in reverse.

The Chancellor’s introduction of the idea of a transition period is another symbol of the ever-changing picture which creates an impression of dispute around the Cabinet table. Only a few weeks ago, the Brexit Secretary said he wasn’t interested in such an agreement. But opinions are moving as the weight of evidence builds, and as ministers hold more meetings and do more listening.

When ministers raise the option of things like a "transition" period, they can mean many things, insiders observe. Mr Hammond wasn't signalling any prefered type of transition. This is the work on which they are engaged behind the scenes.

Does this mean a period of no change until a particular date? Or does it mean different industrial sectors will be given special dispensations?  There are other options. All are on the table

Another big change is being readied as we look to the New Year. The silence on Brexit will change, and change by Easter. Mr Davis’s team is being expanded. He and Mrs May are well aware that as soon as the UK position is shared with EU leaders, they will leak it like a sieve. In those circumstances the UK government will have no choice but to do make their own case in public about the negotiations.

The vacuum will vanish as Mrs May seeks to control the message. It’s hard enough to control the message with the kind of figures she has chosen for Cabinet. Boris Johnson has generated many headlines in recent days.Some have even marked his card, and see his days numbered. But speak to the PM’s team, and you get a different picture. There is “great affection” for BoJo despite what you might think. He is genuinely at the top table.

People admit there are teething problems managing a team of huge characters who never had time together before forming an administration. An insider says: “Theresa knew exactly who she was appointing. If she’d have wanted wallflowers she’d have got them. She wants strong characters who’ll lead the country.”

Commentators who’ve been around since the days of Tony Blair – myself included – have long been schooled in the art of Prime Ministerial dictat. Even David Cameron had his “quad” during the Coalition, and met with George Osborne most mornings in the short year he led alone.

The idea of Cabinet ministers expressing their differences of opinions around the Cabinet table was fairly laughable. But things have changed. Mrs May means what she says. Cabinet government means views are expressed and people don’t always agree. That’s life. But she will lead, and ride these days out.


About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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