Theresa May attempted to get 2018 off to a flying start on Monday, with a re-shuffle that was supposed to hit the reset button on her image as a weak and evil yet pathetic creature. This was New Year, New May.
Or so she thought. Like most New Year’s resolutions, good intentions disintegrated as soon as they met reality. In this case, the passage of time hasn’t altered the fact that May is a weak Prime Minister with few friends, who can't get rid of her enemies. Contrary to the plan, she ended up looking more feeble than ever.
May's new year makeover started badly with an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, in which she shrugged off the cancellation of thousands of NHS operations as "part of the plan". Bad optics. She had hoped to come across as the leader who listens, in contrast to the tin-eared Theresa of post-election meltdown. She no longer wants to hold a vote to bring back fox-hunting, she told Marr, because the voters were against it. I couldn’t help but think it was a needless reminder that she recently launched an election campaign by pledging to legislate for the murder of fluffy animals, something I had mostly forgotten.
That botched attempt at taking the initiative set the scene for the re-shuffle. Approaching midday on Monday, Conservative Party headquarters tweeted that Chris Grayling had been made party chairman – and then swiftly deleted that tweet, to much excitement from Westminster journalists. It could have been crossed wires between the leadership and a hapless comms person, or perhaps Tory staffers lost their shit at the reported appointment. Either way, it was stupid, and the press pack had the incompetence story they were hoping for.
Unfortunately for May, the narrative wouldn’t shift, and most news sites led on the story that the reshuffle was "chaotic", a "farce" or a "shambles". The once insignificant hiccups of a masterful despot are now the wretches of a zombie premier. Earlier that morning, the Conservative Party website went down, in what Robert Colvile – director of the Thatcherite CPS think-tank – called "the most appropriate possible metaphor for the party's failure to grasp 21st-century campaigning". Then, the Prime Minster's Twitter feed announced Brandon Lewis as Minister without "porfolio".
Eventually, events put some meat on the bones of the story created by the high-adrenalin drama of a mis-sent tweet. Jeremy Hunt had had been widely tipped for promotion to Business Secretary for his sterling work being rude about striking doctors, but in the event he clung on to his health brief. The story that emerged was that Hunt had mounted a passionate case to keep his job, while Business Secretary Greg Clarke had told May to go suck a lemon if she thought he was giving up his.
Of course, May couldn't successfully sack a famously crap Health Secretary while the NHS is being plunged into another crisis by a reasonably mild winter. So Hunt kept his post. Not only that – he's had "social care" added to his title, with May giving him oversight of the care of Britain's ageing population. Or, as Hunt sees it, a market with some of "the biggest commercial opportunities" going. Greg Clarke kept his job that the government had briefed he wasn't very good at.
There was worse news for May in the evening. After a marathon meeting of over three hours, Justine Greening refused to be given the keys to the Department of Work and Pensions and instead quit the government, returning to the back benches. Theresa May's image "refresh" had lost her one of the few ministers with a vague grounding in reality that she had. It was becoming clear that a reshuffle that was meant to promote diversity would end in newspaper front pages splashing on the resignation of a high profile LGBT minister.
Benefits recipients, meanwhile, get lumped with Esther McVey. She takes over the DWP, having once denied – in the face of all the evidence – that food bank usage was rising because of changes to welfare.
At this point, people started to wonder what the point any of this was. Over at the New Statesman, Stephen Bush pointed out that, in Greening, May had alienated a Remain-supporting MP from a Remain-supporting constituency, as she desperately tries to preserve her tiny Brexit majority. A Tory MP told the Spectator's Isabel Hardman that it was the "worst reshuffle I have ever witnessed in any party ever. None of it makes sense. It’s sabotage. I think someone’s trying to destroy her on the inside. I can’t think of a less dramatic reason!”
Elsewhere, Boris Johnson still hasn’t been sacked as Foreign Secretary. Amber Rudd is still free to spit bile as Home Secretary. Phil Hammond remains Chancellor after an underwhelming budget that the Tories were happy with, even if nobody else was. David Davis is still Brexit Secretary, despite generally coming across as bit of a silly old duffer whenever he meets his Brussels counterparts or talks to the media.
Sajid Javid kept the job he already had, but the word "Housing" was added, so he’s now "Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government". This is presumably supposed to signal how seriously the government is taking the housing crisis and social care in lieu of any policies that would signal that.
If the re-shuffle was meant to refresh the Tories’ stale image, it didn’t manage that. There was some progress, as ten women will now attend cabinet, up from eight, but it's still dominated by white blokes. Mind you, that mild improvement may have been overshadowed by Greening's resignation and the promotion of Maria Caulfield MP, which came straight from the Toby Young school of appointing-the-person-most-likely-to-piss-people-off. Caulfield has previously warned about the "dangerous liberalisation of abortion", and led the defence of what campaigners call "Victorian" abortion laws. She’s now Conservative Party vice chair for women.
In the final analysis Theresa May didn't really do very much, and once again the things that we'll remember are ones that were out of her control. As a piece of political theatre, it was a bit of a snooze-fest, with the only serious drama coming from a middle finger to the PM in the form of Greening's late night resignation. Theresa May had somehow ended the year consolidating what little authority she still had, at least in the solipsistic eyes of the lobby press. In her first move of the new year she appears to have spent that. She wanted a fresh start, but she’s in a feedback loop of failure.
Today, May woke up to even Tory newspapers giving her a pasting, all of which was compounded by the resignation of Toby Young from his controversial appointment to the Office for Students. It's becoming difficult to imagine Theresa May's government getting anything right. Happy new year!