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Theresa May’s Cabinet - a break with the past?

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s construction of her Cabinet appears to be distinctive and different: she announced a more gender-balanced team; she ruthlessly excluded certain individuals who had held significant Cabinet posts, in particular George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2010-2016; and she appointed Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Foreign Secretary). Johnson’s appointment has been controversial because, among other things, over a period of many years he has made impolitic remarks about foreigners and foreign statesmen.

What is new about these approaches? As regards the gender balance issue, every Prime Minister has to be seen to be paying attention to changing public attitudes. Since the enfranchisement of women after the end of the First World War, women’s political participation has become established. Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 demonstrated that there was no bar to a woman holding the highest elected office in the country. Following the General Election of 1997, when more women were elected to parliament than ever before, women have held many significant government posts, such as Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett, 2006-2007) and Home Secretary (Theresa May, 2010-2016). This, along with the increasing number of women who have entered the House of Lords, shows that the political role of women in Westminster is now unquestioned. Beside this must be put the increasing role of women in all aspects of British public life, especially in business and academia. It is, therefore, within the context of recognising public expectations that May’s decision to appoint a better gender-balanced team than the previous government should be seen.

Like Prime Ministers before her, May has to be seen to be different to the Prime Minster she follows and, in May’s case, she also has to be seen to be different to Margaret Thatcher. David Cameron distanced the Conservative Party from the long shadow of Thatcher and her “Nasty Party”- May too will have to keep this in mind. For Cameron, gay marriage legislation established his credentials as a contemporary, tolerant politician because it was an issue on which general social attitudes had changed very rapidly since the 1970s and 1980s. For May, having more women in Cabinet – in particular the appointment of Justine Greening, who is in a same sex relationship, as Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equality – is a way of demonstrating that she too is a progressive politician and unlike Thatcher with her social conservatism.

May’s dismissal of Osborne and some other ministers might appear to resemble Harold Macmillan’s July 1962 “Night of the Long Knives”, when he sacked seven ministers including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd. However, the two events bear little real resemblance not merely because Macmillan was an established Prime Minister reshuffling his existing Cabinet. In 1962, the Conservatives were suffering from, among other things, fatigue, having been in power for over a decade. Macmillan hoped that the reshuffle would revitalise the fortunes of the party by bringing new blood into the front benches. The current situation is different. May has had to form her Cabinet for the explicit purpose of dealing with Brexit.

May’s authority to make her own Cabinet is broadly speaking better than Thatcher’s was in 1979. Since at that time Conservative MPs were divided about the direction of the party’s economic and social policy, Thatcher found that she had to include in her Cabinet individuals like Ian Gilmour, one of the leading “wets” who vocally opposed her economic policies. It took Thatcher several years to oust Gilmour and others like him from her Cabinet. In May’s case, Osborne’s sacking appears to be an expression of her perception of her political authority and her belief that she must distance herself from Cameron and his associates. Additionally, Brexit might require that May compromise on the austerity championed by Osborne since his appointed as Chancellor in 2010: indeed his replacement Philip Hammond has already indicated this might well happen.

Harold Wilson found that he had to appoint Tony Benn to a ministerial position following the February 1974 General Election because of Benn’s appeal to the left-wing of the Labour Party, and the two men were frequently at odds with each other. While May’s relationship is less antagonistic thus far, it seems clear May believed that Boris Johnson, like Benn, could not be denied a Cabinet position. When Johnson threw his name behind Brexit during the referendum, it was source of serious concern for Cameron and the Remain Campaign. Despite Johnson’s subsequent failed leadership bid, he has retained considerable popularity at the grassroots level of the Conservative Party and with supporters of Brexit (including those who voted UKIP): passing him over would be difficult. Historically the post of Foreign Secretary has been thought of as one of the more important offices of state, with many Foreign Secretaries going on to becoming Prime Minister (such as Anthony Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home and John Major). However, as Britain’s world role has altered, the significance of this post has diminished. William Hague’s appointment in 2010 was generally met with approval both at home and abroad but, other than reversing the closures of some British missions abroad and opening some new ones, there were few real achievements when he was moved in 2014.

This suggests that, while Johnson has been appointed to a prestigious Cabinet post, it will probably be one without much real power, particularly with the creation of the post of “Brexit Minister” for David Davis. Davis, not Johnson, will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the most significant alteration of the UK’s foreign policy in recent history. Outside the Commonwealth, Johnson’s derogatory comments about foreigners are likely not to be remembered for very long. The Ugandan Foreign Minister issued a statement deriding Johnson’s appointment – Uganda being a country singled out by Johnson for insult in 2002. However, the UK has never shaped its foreign policy to please the Commonwealth and successive Foreign Secretaries have had to endure the venting of Commonwealth displeasure at yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOMGs). Johnson’s slighting comments about Hillary Clinton potentially might affect Anglo-American relations were she to be elected US President, but it is more likely that Brexit negotiations or something similarly large will have more of an impact. In short, although his appointment might potentially offend some, it was a gamble that May was willing to take.

A Prime Minister’s first Cabinet is an expression of the direction his or her government wishes to go and is the product of party political and other realities of the day. In that sense, May’s construction of her Cabinet has been not much different to any Prime Minister before. What is different is Brexit and all that withdrawal from the EU implies for a British Government. May is very fortunate that the Conservatives have been in government since 2010 (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015), which has allowed her to have a pick of experienced ministers and MPs. How well this team will work will only be known in time.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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