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There was an urgent need for a reshuffle. This Government’s problems are not confined to Downing Street. There are tentacles of incompetence, strangling several departments of state. There is also the Boris question. At such a crucial juncture in world events, is it sensible – is it sane? – to have a Foreign Secretary out of P.G. Wodehouse? Then again, though the vicar’s daughter might put it differently, as LBJ said of J.Edgar Hoover: “better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.” Boris causes enough trouble when he is supposed to be cabined and confined by a great office of state. One can see why the thought of him running about loose, on permanent manoeuvres, might deter a stronger PM than Mrs May.
Boris apart, there are at least five Cabinet or quasi-Cabinet ministers who ought to be sacked for serial incompetence. Although Chris Grayling is a decent fellow, he proves the truth of the Clausewitz dictum: that hard-working officers of limited ability are a menace, because their efforts will earn over-promotion – and the opportunity to cause disasters. Priti Patel is quite good at prattling away on television, but she is not up to running a Ministry: not even DfiD. Liam Fox is a life-long lightweight.
Andrea Leadsom, she of the complicated CV, survives because she was the final leadership challenger. Technically, and even though she is Leader of the Commons, she is no longer a full member of the Cabinet. That is a double error. First, it is an insult to the Commons. Second, under a minority Government, the Leader needs to deploy subtlety, finesse, cunning, charm and an effortless command of the relevant detail. Is that Mrs Leadsom? Seems unlikely.
Then there is Liz Truss. She is a sweet girl, and a pretty face turneth away wrath. Yet there are limits. Her appointment to the Lord Chancellorship was an insult to nine hundred years of English legal history. Sources close to Miss Truss are now claiming that she was slow to defend the judiciary from press attacks because the No.10 hell-spads forbade her from upsetting the Daily Mail. If that is true, it is pathetic. Can anyone imagine Quintin Hailsham or James Mackay or Derry Irvine being told what to do by a special advisor? It is an amusing thought.
Liz Truss is only 41, and does not even look that. Perhaps she should have been given the chance to start again, as a parly sec: plenty of 41 year-olds would kill for that opportunity. Instead, she has been made Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The Chief Secretaryship may rank low in the order of precedence, but it is a vitally important. Under the Chancellor, the holder is in charge of public spending: £800 billion pounds of it. There is a relentless work-load: meetings all day, papers all night. Again, there is a daunting need to command the detail. In 1979, Mrs Thatcher gave the job to John Biffen. A bright man and delightful company, John would have been the ideal fellow to discuss public spending over dinner at high table. In an office, having to turn theory into practice, he was hopeless. The then Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, had to do John’s work as well his own. That helps to explain the Treasury’s difficulties between 1979 and early ’81, when Mr Biffen was moved. The modern Treasury can only work if it is pulled by two enormous locomotives.
Is Liz Truss an enormous railway engine? That also seems unlikely. Moreover, these are especially difficult times. The government would like to move away from the rhetoric of austerity without giving the impression that the deficit no longer matters. That will not be easy, especially as it is known that the Chancellor does not command the PM’s confidence (whatever that is worth). Then again, let us allow ourselves to be seduced by pulchritude and give the girl a chance. After all, Danny Alexander became Chief Secretary at an even younger age. Until shortly before that dramatic elevation, he had been press spokesman for the Auchtermuchty tree-huggers’ collective, or somesuch. Because of that, his arrival was greeted with foreboding, which proved wholly unjustified. Danny proved to be an outstanding Chief Secretary, and did the job for five years. Since 1979, Chief Secretaries had been promoted after half a Parliament. Anything longer was regarded as making unreasonable demands on stamina. Could Miss Truss emulate the now Sir Danny? She will either turn out to be this government’s most surprising success or one of its more predictable failures.
Apropos the Lord Chancellorship, an opportunity was missed. Either Edward Faulks or Richard Keen, both already in the Lords, both serious lawyers, would have restored the dignity and prestige which that mighty office ought to command. David Lidington will do his best, but he is not a lawyer. When is the current Tory Party going to display some reverence for tradition?
Lords matters bring us to a most grievous loss which the Government has suffered during this reshuffle. In their Lordships’ House, two parly secs resigned. One was Andrew Dunlop. who had done the Lord’s work at the Scottish Office. An outstanding product of the Conservative Research Department who went on to success in the private sector, Andrew was persuaded to return to politics and help preserve the Union. After this election, that task looks vastly easier. Andrew is entitled to stand down, and to plaudits.
George Bridges is another matter. This is the grievous loss. He is the grandson of the great Lord Bridges, one of the finest civil servants of the Twentieth Century, and the blood-line runs true. There was no abler member of the current government. He was not only a vital member of the Brexit team. In the Lords, he did a vast amount of work. The current Lords Leader, Nat Evans, is OK. But she does not owe her position to merit. She was appointed because she was a friend of Nick Timothy’s (something she may now wish to keep quiet about.) If Government appointments were made on merit as opposed to demeaning quotas, George would now be Leader of the Lords.
He gave up his job because he cannot forgive the current regime for the General Election degringolade. A man who understands politics and process, he saw both violated until he could stand it no longer. Not a man normally given to rage and despair, he was overwhelmed by both. George will be back. He has a future in politics, at the highest level, when the Tory party returns to its senses and to sound leadership.
When will that be?