In sacking Gavin Williamson for an offence he strenuously denies Theresa May has created for herself a potential embarrassment. What if a criminal inquiry were to find the former defence secretary not guilty of any breach of the Official Secrets Act? Yet as no-one seems to have noticed, the mini-reshuffle she carried out in the wake of the sacking has avoided another fast-looming embarrassment. In promoting Rory Stewart to the Cabinet as International Development Secretary she has averted the loss of a popular and up and coming minister.
Last August, when prisons minister, Stewart made a rash promise. He said he would resign if he had not succeeded in reducing violence and drug-taking in 10 target jails within a year. At the time, those ten jails had seen over 3500 assaults in the previous 12 months, a figure which had more than doubled in just three years. Stewart promised investment in new equipment to detect drugs coming into jails as well as looking at scrapping short sentences.
How was he doing? Not all that well to judge by the quarterly figures put out by the Ministry of Justice last week. They showed that violence in jails had continued to rise with 34,223 assaults in 2018, a 16 per cent rise compared with 2017. While assaults for the last quarter of 2018 were 11 per cent down on those for the third quarter, they were still five per cent up on those for the last quarter of 2017. The MoJ did not publish figures specifically for Stewart’s target ten jails, but clearly reducing violence in jails was proving harder than he had reckoned with when he made his promise to resign.
But now? He no longer has the job of prisons minister to resign from. It will be someone else’s problem – another minister who can quietly forget about the promise Stewart had made. Will we even get to hear the result of Stewart’s self-imposed challenge? I rather fear we won’t, but if we do you can be sure that the news will be managed in such a way as to exonerate Stewart and his successor – in a way which would not have been possible had Stewart still been in post.
May might appear to be floundering at Number 10, but in booting the loyal Stewart upstairs she has shown some astute political awareness.