When I went to work at Foyle’s Bookshop as a student, when the owner Christina Foyle still ran the place, she would interview you and ask very kindly what your interests were: history, literature and cooking, you’d tell her. Then you’d find you’d been put at the cash till at some distance from all these departments. It was the same for everyone: economists ended up in fiction; pop fiends in natural science.
It’s rather the impression you get from the reshuffle. The metaphor is normally used in the most offhand way, but it really does seem as if the PM has simply shuffled the jobs and distributed them pretty well at random to a collection of people she likes without regard for fit or aptitude – worse, without any apparent sense of responsibility to the departments being scattered among her supporters.
To begin with the new appointments made sense. Giving the Brexiteers ownership of Brexit; that was sensible. David Davis returning…that was good. Liam Fox in charge of International Trade, interesting. Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary…fabulous. Philip Hammond at the Treasury…really? But let’s see.
But then it all started to unravel. There was neither sense nor generosity in the PM’s brutality to Michael Gove. He had patently acted like a lunatic over the leadership campaign, behaving neither rationally nor honourably, but all that is over now. But it is still quite extraordinary that Mrs May has not taken on board that Mr Gove was pretty well the one reformer in government. He had a transformative effect as Education Secretary – if the pass rate is not going up year on year as it once did, the credit is his, and if fewer children are taking media studies and more of them maths, well, that’s down to him too; ditto the quite remarkable extent to which children are being taught fundamental skills systematically. I have two children in state schools; I am in his debt. He really did want to close the gap between the privately educated and those who couldn’t buy themselves out of the system. That should have been a fit with Mrs May’s own agenda.
It’s why he was such a good fit at Justice too. He was shaping up to be a genuinely reformist Justice Secretary, having identified right at the start that prison was for people who had been failed by, among other things, the education system; it was in a way where his previous department left off. His Christian feel for rehabilitating the sinner was patently the driving force behind his programme of reforms. Rehabilitation is one of those things everyone talks about but he, remarkably and in a way his predecessors had not, started to engage with, though God knows, cuts fell disproportionately on prisons. His programme for giving governors greater autonomy was an interesting take on the same principle in schools; ‘academy prisons’, you might say, though the title was ‘reform prisons’. If you want to know why Mrs May should have left him well alone, read the account of Michael Gove’s address to the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Instead, we’ve got Justine Greening as Education Secretary, Liz Truss at the Department for Justice. They are women; no doubt about it, but tell me, someone, why they are in these jobs rather than any others? Justine Greening is comprehensive-educated, fine, but at Transport she didn’t particularly distinguish herself except to fudge aviation expansion; while at the Department for International Development she had the job of spending the enormous sums that the Government was devoting to overseas aid; not a difficult task, though those who travelled with her talked about her commitment to development. Yet the future of schools, the single greatest instrument of social mobility, is now over to her without any obvious qualification for it in terms of ‘passion’ or interest or experience. As for Liz Truss, at Environment she managed neither to impress farmers nor environmentalists, a notable feat. There are, granted, no votes to be won in prison reform – we don’t care until the unrehabilitated burgle us – but as a vicar’s daughter, you might have thought Mrs May would feel differently. The best anyone can say about either appointment is that it shows Mrs May is not interested in specialists, for which read those who know what they’re doing. But undeniably they’re women. Happy now, ladies? Harriet? Yvette?
Stephen Crabb, meanwhile, that rare beast, a Tory with an immediate experience of the benefit system, a council house and comprehensive schools, someone who knows about the effect of benefits on the work culture, is retiring to spend more time with his family – let’s not even go there. For which we can read, he couldn’t keep the job at Work and Pensions he had for which he really was qualified by personal experience and personal commitment.
But Karen Bradley is perhaps the most obvious example of Mrs May’s apparently random allocation of roles to women she quite rates. Mrs Bradley is at Culture, Media and Sport and from all we know it is solely sport, or rather football, she knows the first thing about. The new Culture Secretary can’t imagine Christmas without reading A Christmas Carol; she is also a crime thriller fan, having read ‘every Morse, Dalziel and Pascoe, Frost and Rebus that’s been printed’. Christ. She is an accountant, from KPMG, so she might have made a perfectly good Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Instead, we’ve got her in charge of culture, which tells us everything we need to know about the respect in which that department is held.
Like I say, it’s like Foyle’s bookshop in the old days, though at least the redeeming feature of that regime was that everyone was sacked after three months.
PS And let’s not forget Andrea Leadsom. Granted, it was good and magnanimous of Theresa May to promote the woman who enabled her to take office weeks before she expected, but Environment? Mrs Leadsom might have been brilliant at the Treasury in some capacity (though not chancellor), or at International Development, or even Communities, having engaged energetically in practical charity work, but environment? It’s a really important brief, you know, given the sheer uncertainty surrounding environmental protection post Brexit. If Mrs May had wanted to suggest to the green lobby that she really couldn’t care less, why, she’s gone the right way about it. There was always Zac Goldsmith, you know; not a woman, but someone who knows and cares about this particular brief. Remember him?