When Parliament returns tomorrow, Theresa May will come back to work to find her position a bit more secure than it was when she left for the summer break. With no obvious leadership challenger and her party vaguely united behind her, May looks safe in No 10 in the coming months – even if her claim that she could lead her party into another election looks dubious at best.
It follows that talk has now turned to how she could shore up her position and assert her authority on her party. The Times reports that the prime minister and her allies are planning to use the threat of a reshuffle to further bolster her authority. There’s talk of an October shuffle but the paper says that this may now be pushed back so that she can be bolder and promote new talent like Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer – and Jacob Rees Mogg.
Last month, I wrote in the magazine that the Prime Minister ought to consider a new talent reshuffle if she is serious about providing a stable transition for her party. The appeal of Cabinet candidates to takeover from May is on the wane and the general consensus is that a new face is needed. However, as the role of Prime Minister is not an entry level job, it’s hard to see how a candidate with no ministerial experience could be viable.
It was thanks to Michael Howard staying on after the 2005 election and performing a reshuffle like this that David Cameron and George Osborne had a chance to prove themselves. Howard kept the old guard on side by making sure established candidates – like Sir Malcolm Rifkind and David Davis – were also included.
Of course such a move comes with risks. May is still in a vulnerable position and sacking the wrong person could lead to a rebellion. However, if the majority of MPs thought the reshuffle was for the good of their party rather than revenge, it’s likely they would support it. As Craig Oliver – Cameron’s former director of communications – has pointed out, there is another potential complication:
— Craig Oliver (@CraigOliver100) August 17, 2017
If it looked as though May was figuring out who her successor could be it would only fuel leadership speculation. It also follows that since some in No 10 want to keep the idea alive that she could have five years in her, they would not want to go as far as Howard did.
However, given that no-one really buys the claim of five more years of May, leadership speculation will follow no matter what she does. She cannot end leadership speculation, but she can manage it. If done sensibly and with good intention, a reshuffle that promotes young talent could rejuvenate the party and help lay a solid foundation for a transition of power – whenever that may be.