Diary

ConHome Diary: Theresa May & DD - Starting As They Mean To Go On

15 Jul 2016 at 13:58

As I start writing this column, Theresa May is embarking on the second part of her reshuffle. She’s certainly hit the ground running and no one, can say, especially George Osborne, that she hasn’t been decisive in her initial choices. In her initial speech outside Number Ten I thought she was rather cursory in her comments about Brexit, but by picking the three Brexiteers – Johnson, Davis and Fox – she has dispelled any doubts about her intentions. I have severe doubts as to whether Boris will play any meaningful part in the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, with trade and Europe being taken out of the Foreign Office, you could argue that Theresa May has done what Margaret Thatcher never achieved, and neutered it. I imagine it will be David Davis who accompanies Theresa May to EU summits, with Boris only playing a peripheral role, but we’ll soon find out. There are bound to be one or two tensions between Liam Fox and David Davis too, I imagine, with Davis probably insisting on keeping EU trade negotiations to himself with Fox concentrating on building trade deals with non EU countries. I suspect it’s called ‘creative tension’.
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Theresa May is said to be naturally risk-averse. You wouldn’t know it from her initial cabinet appointments. Any one of the Three Brexiteers could, given their recent political histories, self-combust at any time. She’s trusted them not to do so, but I imagine there will be a fairly lively betting market on the first cabinet minister to quit. Boris will probably be favourite, given his previous forays into foreign affairs. Or affairs full stop.
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Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The lazarus like rise of David Davis has attracted much comment, given that David Cameron refused to bring him into government following his resignation in 2008 and his subsequent by-election. Cameron felt he couldn’t trust him not to do it again. A few weeks ago I suggested in this very column that he would be the ideal man to head up our Brexit negotiations in a separate government department. To be honest, it was more in hope than expectation, but others seemed to agree and there was quite a lot of press comment to that effect. Others were also in the frame – Peter Lilley, Chris Grayling and Liam Fox to name but a few.
In some ways Davis’s whole political career has led to this moment. He was Europe Minister in the Major government so knows his way around Brussels. He’s also great friends with Jonathan Hill, our outgoing EU Commissioner and is one of the few politicians on the Leave side to have a fairly clear idea of what Brexit looks like. He’s also a very experienced negotiator. He and Theresa May will make a very good negotiating team. It won’t be ‘nice cop, nasty cop’. Anyone who’s been the other side of the table to Theresa May knows that she usually comes out on top. She has a particular talent of fixing her opponents with a gimlet stare, and crucially for a negotiator, she is unembarrassable. She’s very unlikely to give way at the last minute in the spirit of compromise. It should make for some interesting exchanges.
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When you make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs. Theresa May hasn’t been afraid to crack eggs with George Osborne and Michael Gove being the two main yolks to have been disposed of. Both are incredibly talented, but a new prime minister has to make the appointments she wants to make, and given her apparent views on Osborne’s economic policies and their semi-public rows of recent years, his sacking (and that’s what it was) was almost inevitable. What really did for him was the so-called ‘punishment budget’ and his totally OTT dire warnings of economic collapse. There was no way back for him after that. Similarly, Michael Gove and Theresa May had some very public fallings out and even had he not defenestrated Boris Johnson in such a public way, his card was already marked, not least by Theresa May’s chief advisors Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. I have always been a huge fan of Michael Gove, and I genuinely hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
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Sacked cabinet ministers are always the very public casualties of a new government, but few people give a second’s though to their special advisors. They also lose their jobs with no notice at all. I know a lot of them and I’m truly sorry for them. They have invested a lot in their respective bosses and now have nothing to show for it, beyond the glories of working in the upper echelons of government. Take George Osborne. He had built a team of advisors around him who were all being prepared to take over in Number 10. James Chapman had a great job as political editor of the Daily Mail. He was recruited by the then Chancellor to beef up his press operations and was joined by Sur Beeby recently. Neil O’Brien left Policy Exchange. Thea Rodgers joined from the BBC. Gove’s two loyal lieutenants Henry Newman and Henry Cook are now left without roles. In Number Ten all of David Cameron’s advisors have left their roles. I’ve just heard that Nicky Morgan has been sacked, so her advisors including Luke Tryl will have to find new roles. It’s a cruel world.
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New cabinet ministers are never as powerful as on their first day. I’m told by a Whitehall source that David Davis’s first act as Brexit Secretary was to demand that Ivan Rogers, the head of UKREP, the UK’s Representative in Brussels, be summoned to meet him yesterday. An afternoon meeting was considered too tardy, so the poor man had to catch the first Eurostar out of Brussels heading for a mid-morning Cabinet Office meeting. I think it’s called starting as you mean to go on.
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One of the great ironies of the last few days is that David Davis will spend more time on the newly unveiled Cam Force One than David Cameron ever did. He won’t enjoy that at all. Not. At. All.
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Overall I think Theresa May has done an excellent forming her first Cabinet. There are, however, a few appointments that leave me scratching my head. Take Liz Truss, for instance. On what planet is putting her at Justice a good idea? No legal background, no interest in prison reform from what I can see and no record of any strong views on human rights issues. A totally bizarre appointment. I do, however, love the idea of Priti Patel at Dfid, a department I rather suspect she’d be delighted to abolish. Her civil servants will be appalled by the appointment.
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Patrick McLoughlin will be an excellent party chairman. There couldn’t be more of a contrast with his old Etonian predecessor. I think that combined with the message of Theresa May’s appeal to working class voters in Downing Street it shows that the new Prime Minister is intent on parking her tanks on Labour’s lawn. It’s a covert message to right wing Labour MPs too, that there’s a home for them in the Conservative Party if the going gets too tough under Jeremy Corbyn.
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Only 8 female cabinet ministers out of 25, two ethnic minority cabinet ministers and two gay ones. Enough? Could do better? Don’t give a toss?

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