Theresa May has faced a turbulent 12 months. Her attempt to gain a larger Commons majority through an early election resulted in a surprise hung parliament, and a political situation which hampered her ability to reshuffle her Cabinet ministers. Her decision to move a high proportion of junior ministers, both after the election and in January 2018, could make it more difficult for her Government to achieve its objectives.
Following the reshuffle after the 2017 election, only 25% of Cabinet ministers were new to their role, fewer than after any other election or change of Prime Minister since at least 1997. Cabinet stability is positive: ministers are often moved around too much. Nonetheless, in this instance it was also indicative of some loss of prime ministerial authority. After losing three Cabinet ministers in seven weeks at the end of 2017, May conducted another reshuffle in January 2018.
Churn at junior ministerial levels, where a lot of government business gets done, was considerably higher than that within the Cabinet at both reshuffles: 71% of all current ministers have taken on their roles since the 2017 election. Following the January 2018 reshuffle, all Cabinet Office ministers and three quarters of Ministry of Justice (MoJ)ministers were new to their role.
The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) was largely untouched by the January 2018 reshuffle, but lost three ministers in four months during 2017, and is now on its third different Lords minister.
Post-election changes to Cabinet committees, which can take decisions that are binding across government, suggested that May had become more willing to delegate: after the election, her deputy, Damian Green, chaired more committees than she did. Cabinet committees are currently focused on national security, Brexit and industrial strategy, reflecting the Prime Minister's stated priorities.
The January reshuffle slightly increased the presence of women within May’s Government. Female ministers now make up 34.5% of Cabinet attendees, and there is only one department without a female minister, compared to five before.
Minority government may make governing difficult in the run-up to Brexit
In April 2017, Theresa May announced her intention to call an early general election. Her rationale was that ‘the country is coming together but Westminster is not… Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit’. But two months later, the ‘division’ May sought to end was entrenched by a widely unanticipated hung parliament (although Survation and YouGov estimates were close to the actual result). This was the fifth general election since 1918 in which no party won a majority of seats (the others were in 1923, 1929, February 1974 and 2010). With 317 seats, just a few short of a majority, the Conservatives formed a minority administration, supported by a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Hung parliaments are not inherently unstable – both coalition and minority governments have been made to work – but the Government will need to prioritise and achieve consensus if it is to achieve its objectives. As a minority administration, it is more vulnerable to defeats in the House of Commons (see Chapter 5, on passing legislation).
For the first 17 months of her premiership, Theresa May did not suffer a defeat, but maintaining this record was difficult. The Government used a number of means to avoid losing a vote – from changing its position (as with the concession to cover the cost of abortions for women in Northern Ireland) to the more unusual use of a three- line whip to enforce abstentions (as with the Opposition Day Motion for pausing the rollout of Universal Credit). The abstention technique earned a rebuke from the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who said: ‘It would be respectful to the House if a minister sooner rather than later were to come to the House, to give an indication of the Government’s thinking.’
Following a series of narrow victories on amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the Government was defeated for the first time, on an amendment which required Parliament to have a ‘meaningful vote’ on a final Brexit deal. May’s first defeat, on a crucial piece of Brexit legislation, was a demonstration of the difficulties that a minority government faces in achieving its objectives. The small majority also means the Government may struggle to reverse amendments made by the House of Lords.
May’s ability to reshuffle her Cabinet was limited following the election
Following the unexpected election result, with Europe continuing to divide the Conservative party, without the cover of a majority a parliamentary majority, and with polls suggesting declining public satisfaction with her leadership (her minus 25 rating in July 2017 was the lowest ever recorded by Ipsos MORI for a prime minister in a month following a general election), the Prime Minister’s ability to reshuffle her Cabinet was reduced. Despite speculation before the election about Cabinet changes, the only person to leave the Cabinet was the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Ben Gummer, who lost his Ipswich seat.
In total, 21 Cabinet attendees remained in the same position; only 25% of Cabinet ministers were new to their posts. This is lower than following any general election or change of Prime Minister since at least 1997. Although Cabinet stability is normally positive (ministers are often moved around too much), in this instance it was also indicative of some loss of prime ministerial authority.
Some changes did take place: Damian Green, David Gauke and David Lidington were all promoted (Green becoming First Secretary of State and second among equals behind May). Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom were moved to less prominent posts. Meanwhile, Michael Gove re-entered Cabinet, as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Brandon Lewis joined for the first time as Minister of State for Immigration.
However, in November 2017 Theresa May was forced to make further Cabinet changes as Michael Fallon (Secretary of State for Defence) and Priti Patel (Secretary of State for International Development) became embroiled in separate scandals (relating to sexual harassment, and undocumented meetings while on holiday in Israel, respectively). In December 2017, May lost her third Cabinet member in seven weeks after Damian Green (First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office) was found to have breached the ministerial code during an investigation into his alleged inappropriate behaviour. Having responded to the loss of Fallon and Patel with minimal change, May used Green’s exit to instigate a wider reshuffle in January 2018.
At first glance, the January reshuffle may not appear to have been extensive at Cabinet level, resulting as it did in 31% of Cabinet ministers being new to their post and just three people leaving (including Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who chose not to accept an alternative post). Jeremy Hunt reportedly refused to leave the Department of Health. But new secretaries of state were appointed to departments which have experienced significant turnover in recent years: David Gauke and Matt Hancock became the sixth Justice Secretary and sixth Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary respectively since 2010. David Lidington became the fifth Minister for the Cabinet Office and Esther McVey the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary during the same period.
Two departments were renamed during the reshuffle: the Department of Health (now the Department of Health and Social Care, or DHSC), and the Department for Communities and Local Government (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, or MHCLG). This may have been an attempt to signal the Government’s domestic policy ambitions, though it was not immediately clear whether either department would take on any new responsibilities.
There has been much higher turnover at junior ministerial level
Reshuffles of junior ministers tend to attract less attention than Cabinet changes, but are still significant: junior ministers often lead the implementation of particular policies and represent their departments in parliament. Following the June 2017 reshuffle, 44% of ministers across government were new to their posts, with eight departments having 50% or fewer ministers continuing in post – at the Treasury Philip Hammond was the only minister not to leave. At the January 2018 reshuffle, 38.5% of ministers were new to their position. Altogether, following the January reshuffle, 71% of ministers have been appointed to their posts since the 2017 general election.
The greatest changes in January were at the Cabinet Office, with all its ministers new to post, and the MoJ, where three out of the four are new. Another five departments also had more than half of their ministers replaced. Only at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Scotland Office has the ministerial make-up been unchanged since July 2017.
Another area of significant churn was the House of Commons Whips’ Office, which has had two different chief whips and three different deputy chief whips since October 2017. 72% of all whips were new to their post following the January reshuffle. This is despite the particular importance of parliamentary management under a minority government.
As a consequence of the two reshuffles, fewer than a third of government ministers now hold the same position as they did in Theresa May’s initial government appointments in July 2016.
The ministerial team at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) was left intact at the January reshuffle, though it did gain a minister. But it had already experienced disruption during 2017. Half of ministers at DExEU were changed a week before major negotiations with the EU began, as part of the Prime Minister's post- election reshuffle. There were further changes in late October 2017, as Minister of State Baroness Anelay stepped down to be replaced by Lord Callanan. This means that the department lost three ministers in the space of just over four months, and is now on its third different minister in the Lords – a critical role, given the importance of shepherding Brexit legislation through the upper house. DExEU is also on its second permanent secretary this year, with Oliver Robbins – who previously performed a dual role at DExEU and as the Prime Minister’s Brexit ‘sherpa’ – moved back to Number 10, to be replaced by Philip Rycroft.
Turnover of special advisers (spads) has reduced from 2016, but is still higher than under the Coalition
As of December 2017, there were 88 special advisers (spads) – temporary civil servants who provide political support to ministers. The number of spads rose from 63 in June 2010 to a peak of 107 in November 2014, as the Government got to grips with the challenges of coalition. The Prime Minister's Office currently has by far the greatest number, 32; next is the Treasury, with six.
In recent years, there has been a high turnover of special advisers as the Coalition gave way to first the Cameron and then the May governments. In December 2016, only 17% of spads were in the same position as the year before. If 2017 provided an opportunity to limit turnover among special advisers, it was complicated by the general election: 12 spads from the Prime Minister’s Office left their posts between December 2016 and July 2017. Overall, turnover was lower in 2017 than in 2016 when 55% of spads were in the same position as the previous year. Eight departments retained all of their spads between December 2016 and December 2017, while five kept none.
But turnover was still higher than throughout the coalition period. The reshuffle in January 2018 is likely to mean that this high turnover will continue into a fourth year.
The post-election Cabinet committees reflect the Government’s priorities…
Cabinet committees – ‘groups of ministers that can take collective decisions that are binding across government’ – are where a lot of government business gets done. Theresa May set out her intention to use these committees for ‘policy development’, ‘reinstat[ing] what might be described as a more traditional way of doing government’. After the election, there were 20 Cabinet committees and implementation taskforces, down from 23 in March 2017 (already fewer than in the Cameron era, with implementation taskforces – introduced under Cameron – particularly pared back). A further European Union Exit and Trade sub-committee – on domestic preparedness, legislation and devolution – was announced on 31 October, bringing the total number of Cabinet committees to 21.
Following the election there has been a high degree of continuity within the committees, with 18 continuing in some form and only the National Security Council (Cyber) sub-committee abolished. Much like a previous decision to abolish the Health and Social Care taskforce, taken when May became Prime Minister, the rationale for this change is unclear (particularly following the WannaCry ransomware attack on the NHS in May and the cyber-attack on Parliament in June). The Cabinet committee structure reflects the Government's priorities of Brexit, national security and industrial strategy.
…as well as changes to May’s style of leadership
Before the election, the Prime Minister chaired all 12 of the Cabinet committees she attended, while no other minister was responsible for more than two. But as of November 2017, May attended and chaired only eight committees; the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, chaired more than the Prime Minister (nine, in contrast to March 2017, when neither Green nor his predecessor, Gummer, chaired any). Furthermore, Green attended all but two Cabinet committees (19); before the election, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, attended the most committees (17).
May’s approach to Cabinet committees was previously regarded as an indication of her leadership style, specifically a desire for control. The change in membership and chairing responsibilities following the election suggested that May was prioritising and delegating more; it also confirmed how important Green was as a deputy to May. Reports suggest that the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, will continue to chair these committees.
There has been some progress in improving the gender balance of the Government
Part of the Prime Minister’s stated intention behind the January 2018 reshuffle was to make the Government look ‘more like the country it serves’ and to introduce a ‘new generation’ of ministers. With regards to gender balance this appears to have been a moderate success.
Following the January 2018 reshuffle, nearly a third of all ministers are women, only one department (the Ministry of Defence) has no female minister, and in three departments half or more ministers are women (they are in the majority at the Home Office). This is an improvement from the reshuffle after the 2017 election, where only a quarter of ministers were female and five departments had no female ministers. In particular, there has been an increase in female ministers of state – from 15% to 27% – the pool from which the next generation of Cabinet ministers are most likely to come. The percentage of women in the Cabinet also rose, from 28.6% before Damian Green’s departure to 34.5% (although largely because more women are now allowed to attend Cabinet rather than them being full members).
In other areas, progress has been slower and some areas of government still appear to be dominated by men. The percentage of female special advisers declined from 33% to 25% between December 2016 and December 2017, with eight departments having no female spads. Similarly there are five select committees on which fewer than 20% of members are female: Transport, Foreign Affairs, Defence, International Development, and Science and Technology. Nonetheless, eight of 24 Select Committees are chaired by women, and overall, women make up a third of Select Committee members.