Theresa May’s Cabinet shake-up is more significant at the Conservatives’ HQ than in Downing Street, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
It must go down as the shortest promotion in history. Chris Grayling was announced as the new chairman of the Conservative Party for all of 27 seconds yesterday.
If the Transport Secretary can cut the average train delay to that kind of time, he could retire in triumph.
Some kind of humiliation was inevitable during proceedings. There is no such thing as a ‘good’ cabinet reshuffle; when you step back, it’s a process whereby an employer publicly sacks a handful of senior managers and then parades their replacements in front of the national media later that day.
As a means of asserting authority, there’s little dignity in it, and the lowlights of reshuffles gone by have passed into legend. David Cameron was accused of dispensing with unwanted ministers while sipping red wine and telling them they were too old. On at least two recent occasions, jobs have been announced for the wrong people because MPs have had similar-sounding names. The late Labour MP Malcolm Wicks is claimed to have missed out on a ministerial job because a post-it note with his name on it dropped off a bulletin board, without anyone noticing.
But while it will make for embarrassing newspaper copy, few people in the real world will notice Conservative Party HQ’s hastily-corrected twitter blooper, and fewer still will remember.
However, the mistake does cast a spotlight on what this reshuffle is really about, and why it matters.
As unlikely as this sounds, Grayling’s unremarkable half-minute tenure as Conservative Party chairman recalls a bit of rock-and-roll folklore.
Among other things, the band Van Halen were notorious for their touring rider, which demanded that gig venues provide a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown-coloured candies picked out by hand.
The absurd, diva-like behaviour went down as one of the more bizarre examples of rock and roll excess, but the real reason was only revealed when frontman David Lee Roth published his autobiography.
“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl… well, linecheck the entire production,” he wrote.
“Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem… something like, literally, life-threatening.”
Like a brown M&M in a bowl of candy, one embarrassing tweet means nothing – but it is a small reminder of how the Conservative Party isn’t working.
The twitter snafu that saw Grayling’s name released is thought to have come about because senior ministers and party officials genuinely believed he was going to be put in charge of refreshing the Conservative campaign operation.
Journalists were briefed, and duly went on air with the information, which was picked up by CCHQ’s political director. The incorrect announcement was then pushed out both on social media and via instant messaging to Tory MPs.
The fact that it went wrong tells us a couple of things: one, that despite cliquishness being a long-established fault of May’s administration, the biggest decisions continue to be made in isolation by a small group of people in Downing Street, without briefing colleagues in the wider party apparatus; two, those left on the outside include the people charged with spreading the Tories’ message online, where they desperately need to close the gap on a Labour Party boosted by the energy and know-how of Momentum.
While the actual figures are a closely guarded (and embarrassing) secret, expert analysis suggests membership of the Conservative Party has fallen below 100,000 and may be as little as 70,000.
The party has a particular problem with the under-40s, which is why it so badly needs to close the gap with Labour in digital messaging. The flaws in its online operation could well be life-threatening in a general election.
Much of the Tories’ effort in this area at the end of last year was spent trying to fix the perception, created by a minor parliamentary vote on Brexit that was badly handled and unhelpfully reported, that its MPs were trying to strip away EU protections for animals. The claim went viral online, with Tory MPs told to get on social media to put the record straight, posing with their pets if at all possible.
May’s indefinite postponement of any vote to restore foxhunting was a major real-world attempt to clean up a mess that largely took place in cyberspace. This week’s reshuffle is another.
The New Year tidy-up of the Cabinet isn’t about re-shaping May’s government, pointing it in a new direction or giving it a new edge. Her hands are tied by parliamentary arithmetic and outside events, which is why so many of the big names in the Cabinet have once again stayed in place despite the Prime Minister’s long-standing desire to sack them. The only radical reshuffle May will ever carry out came at the start of her premiership, when she left Cameron Toryism out on the kerb for the binmen and set up an administration to deliver her idea of Brexit.
In any case, after 18 months, the government has little domestic agenda to speak of. The Prime Minister’s lofty aspirations to cure ‘burning injustices’ have barely moved beyond the rhetoric, and if Downing Street is honest with itself, it will admit that its role is to deliver a Brexit outcome that is acceptable to a plurality of voters before the next general election.
No, this isn’t a reshuffle about the country, or the government, but about the Conservative Party and how it presents itself. The most significant appointments aren’t in the Cabinet but in CPHQ, where the ambitious MP James Cleverly has been drafted in to bring greater youth, energy and a bit of his anarchic social media style to Tory campaigning.
In a Downing Street photoshoot yesterday he was flanked by a multi-ethnic gender balance cast of Conservative MPs from the newest intakes who will fan out across the country to re-energise local party operations and campaigns.
That’s the other purpose of this week’s reshuffle: to bring forward a new generation of leaders who can succeed May, as much as she insists she’ll be around for the next general election. You won’t recognise any of the new names today, but in three years, one of them could be Prime Minister.