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If Theresa May’s knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is the most noteworthy thing about her, her ability to make chaos boring surely must come second. This week’s reshuffle was a disaster: Chris Grayling was accidentally appointed party Chairman for 20 minutes, Jeremy Hunt refused to be demoted on the grounds that he didn’t fancy it, and – after briefing the press that May would use the opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to diversity – the administration promptly sacked the only gay woman, only to replace her with a white, male Oxford graduate.
Yet somehow, the overall effect was more dreary than dramatic.
As Ben Kelly rightly pointed out on Reaction, we are all tired of the endless articles telling Theresa May what she should do to fix this government. She clearly isn’t intending to take any of our wise advice, and chances are she will ricochet from semi-crisis to semi-crisis until someone puts her out of her misery several years down the line. I don’t blame her too much for this. Her hands are tied and she clearly is only there out of a (now misplaced) sense of duty, but she surely has an obligation to keep depressed journalists entertained along the way.
Luckily for the poor PM, in this at least she has a manual to help her, in the form of the history of New Labour. The party back then was worse at reshuffles than even Theresa May.
For those of you too young to remember Tony and Gordon’s all too frequent reshuffle shockers back in the early 2000s, they are worth recalling to add context and perspective about this week’s events.
The first is the tragic and true story of Malcolm Wicks, as told by a senior Downing Street aide under Gordon Brown. Wicks was an excellent junior minister (he died in 2012) and would have done wonders for the cabinet, but unfortunately he never got promoted. During the excitement of Gordon Brown’s first reshuffle in 2007, the post-it note bearing Wick’s name and new cabinet position fell onto the floor and got trampled by a special adviser. By the time anyone noticed, the reshuffle was finished, Wicks had been passed over, and nothing could be done to rectify the situation.
It didn’t end there. In the very same reshuffle, Gordon Brown made Meg Munn the Minister for Women and Equalities – before realising that he had already appointed his full allowance of junior ministers and would not be allowed any more on the pay role. Meg was allowed to keep her post, but on the understanding that she would not be paid.Let’s just say that that particular decision didn’t go down too well with female MPs and journalists the following day.
And if Gordon was bad, Tony Blair was worse. In a desperate departmental renaming frenzy in 2003 (it’s what they do to retain the illusion of power when their ministers are refusing to budge), the Prime Minister changed the Department for Business into the “Department for Productivity, Enterprise, Industry, and Skills”, and branded it the Department for PEnIS. In his autobiography, former cabinet minister Alan Johnson reveals in explicit detail the moment he confronted the PM about his decision:
“Four days later I met the Prime Minister on the rose-garden terrace at No 10, surrounded by a battalion of advisers in wicker chairs. We chatted about the challenges I faced. ‘Anything else?’ Tony asked as he prepared to call it a day. ‘Yes, there was one other thing,’ I said boldly. ‘Why has the name of my department been changed to Penis?’ There was silence.”
In the end, the Department for PEnIS was rethought, along with the Sexual Health Advisory Group.
Tony and Gordon did some serious stuff in their time (several wars and a leading role in a financial crisis being top of the list) but they also knew how to do a shambles properly.
So, come on Theresa, for the sake of the dispirited voters and glum journalists, next time you screw up a reshuffle – screw it up with some panache.