Naked Politics Blogger
With the Conservatives and Labour having finalised their post-election reshuffles it is clear that we are in for much of the same, with both remaining on an election footing. It seems that without the Conservative government having the mandate to enact significant change an election is once again looming, presumably in the autumn. The election results establish a very different dynamic in the commons and Labour will be looking to build on their momentum and challenge for a majority next time around.
Theresa May’s minor reshuffle showed only one part of her tedious election mantra of “strong and stable”. The lack of major changes indicates a diminishing of May’s political capital and gives a stay of execution to both Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, both of whom were considered vulnerable in the event of a significant Tory majority. Johnson, if relegated to the backbenches and not bound by collective cabinet responsibility, would provide a significant challenge to May’s tenure as leader. Amber Rudd’s close-call on election night means that with a wafer-thin majority in Hastings she is no longer touted as a possible Chancellor of the Exchequer and any leadership hopes are significantly dashed.
Damian Green has been handed a promotion to First Secretary of State, a role akin to Deputy PM which didn’t feature in May’s pre-election cabinet. With her unpopular advisors Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy now exiled, Green’s appointment signals a shift towards a more inclusive approach to policy-making which will be essential if May is to regain the trust of the parliamentary party. The appointment of Michael Gove as Environment Secretary, whilst a provocation of the left, removes the only leadership threat from the backbenches and sets a conciliatory tone, though it is hard to see a Gove challenge after last year’s disastrous leadership bid. Hard-Brexiteer Steve Baker’s appointment to David Davis’ Brexit team will anger those who believe the election results were a reaction against a hard Brexit, though it seems more likely that Baker will be used as a go-between for Downing Street to rein in its extreme-eurosceptic backbenchers.
Labour’s surprise result last week dispelled any questions surrounded Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, but raised many around the big-hitters who have been consigned to the backbenches in the Corbyn era. In order to harness the momentum of the Labour surge Corbyn must find the right top-team to convert Labour’s dramatic improvement into a Labour government. But like May, not much has changed, though for quite different reasons. Corbyn’s abundance of capital could have seen the likes of Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband return to the front bench. All have shown a willingness to serve, but Corbyn opted to stick with those who have remained loyal throughout his turbulent leadership. It is a little inward looking to not make the most of the talent now at his disposal and the likes of Miliband and Umunna would certainly be an asset in any future Labour government.
Diane Abbott found herself singled out by Sir Lynton Crosby’s nasty and negative campaign as well as by the conservative-leaning media, but it remains to be seen if Abbott can rescue her reputation and establish herself as a legitimate candidate for Home Secretary. If she can’t, Yvette Cooper will be seen as an attractive alternative with support across the Labour movement.
Owen Smith’s return to shadow the Northern Ireland brief can be seen as significant unity appointment after the pair’s bruising leadership contest last summer and will harness Corbyn’s image as somebody willing to look beyond the disputes of his leadership so far in order to unite Labour on a war footing. Beyond the reshuffle itself, Labour seems to be uniting after two years of civil war. Notable Corbyn critics such as Harriet Harman and Ayesha Hazarika have suggested that Labour should fully unite around the Corbyn project ahead of the presumed election later in the year.
As far as we can tell, the coming election will be much of the same. Though, after two extremely negative campaigns in as many years, both of which failed, it’s a safe assumption that Sir Lynton Crosby will be put out to pasture and that May, if indeed she is still in place at the next election, will place the party and its values front-and-centre rather than herself. A Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday now puts Labour ahead of the Tories but if Labour were to hope for a bigger majority in order to enact its radical agenda perhaps a marriage of the two wings of the party should be considered. A compromise in which Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell can retain the social and economic direction of the party whilst deferring some responsibility for foreign policy and defence to party centrists who are now happy to work with the leadership.