In football they call such exercises as a cabinet reshuffle a “set piece”, like taking a throw-in, or a corner: a routine piece of action any team should be well-rehearsed in, but where it cannot ever be taken for granted that things will go well. When a team continues to mess up its set pieces, conceding needless goals and dropping further and further towards the relegation zone, there is usually some pressure on the manager, and the players themselves, to either up their game or go.
So it is with Theresa May’s Government, as has been all too painfully obvious over the past few days. Set piece after set piece has been a flop – the general election, of course, especially the production of a practical manifesto, the party conference speech, the meandering “keynote” speeches on Brexit – and now a modest reshuffle. Rarely has the movement of middle-ranking cabinet ministers around the table produced a spectacle so awful that even seasoned news junkies find themselves wincing. Even the Tory Party’s staunchest allies in the press are left bereft of any positive spin to attach to events.
After all, when you tweet the wrong party chairman, what can even the friendliest editor do for you?
An even easier set piece for a government ought to be the appointment of a chair to some government quango, such as, let us say, the Office for Students. There are established procedures to follow: PR factors to be taken into account and – one might hope – some measure of care to be taken about the competence and integrity of the candidates putting themselves forward. On each and every one of those or any other conceivable criteria, Toby Young was a deeply flawed individual, and one, as even he now implicitly concedes, utterly unsuitable to lead such a body.
Mr Young has now gone back, presumably, to what might be termed “Carry On Tweeting”, or journalistic provocateur, as he grandly describes his schoolboyish wind-ups.
The notion that he was ever going to win the support of leaders in higher education or students themselves was ludicrous. As the hashtag goes, time’s up for the likes of Mr Young. Gratifyingly, it also seems that #TimesUp for the man principally responsible for appointing him, Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, crony of Mr Young, and, now, the ex-minister for universities.
Mr Johnson has been sent to the Department for Transport to work under the demanding Chris Grayling and with the semi-hostile London Mayor Sadiq Khan – the very definition of a punishment demotion. The Prime Minister has, at last, reversed her previous “yellow card” on Mr Young, who must have thought for a few hours that he had got away with it. She has hopefully also taken the opportunity to teach Mr Johnson a lesson.
However, questions remain. Having claimed a rare double scalp in the space of a day – albeit assisted by some sharp interventions by Yvette Cooper – the shadow minister for equalities, Dawn Butler, is rightly continuing to press for answers on all the right questions. What were the procedures that should have been followed in appointing the head of the Office for Students? Were they in fact followed? Who says they were? Was there any breach of the ministerial or civil service code? Why was Mr Young even allowed to apply? Who was doing any assessments or interviews? Did the Prime Minister know about the appointment? As a matter of interest, were there any female or BME applicants? Who else was manoeuvring Mr Young into position?
Or was it just a case, as it looks at the moment, of some jolly japes and jobs for mates, all at the taxpayers’ expense – the business of government and public service debased for the benefit of an over-entitled establishment and, not improbably, for a bit of a laugh?
The Toby Young affair did reek of a public school prank. Until, that is, Dawn Butler used parliamentary procedure to drag Jo Johnson to the floor of the House of Commons to explain himself, his last official act in that office. Ms Butler thus gave a platform to the critics of Mr Young in the Conservative ranks, and added to the discomfiture of both men and the Prime Minister.
Ms Butler should continue to push for answers to these questions, using every lever at her disposal; the Toby Young affair was a shameful one, and a disgrace to the proper administration of an office responsible for the prospects for so many young people less well-heeled than the Johnsons or Young, and with a budget of £1bn. As Ms Butler argues so clearly, the fact that Mr Young was passionate about Free Schools is irrelevant to the post he was appointed to, and no one is impressed that he was a controversial journalist.
The public deserve an explanation as to how it came it be that this clown got the job. Perhaps Ms May has already been given an explanation from Jo Johnson and her patience finally ran out.
Thus far in 2018, it is shadow ministers, not “real” ones, who have proved much more impressive. Frontbencher for frontbencher, we are starting to see Jeremy Corbyn’s relatively inexperienced team start to make the political weather a little, and to confound those who felt them unable to do the job. John Ashworth, as Shadow Heath Secretary, has put in a particularly effective performance, picking up, for example, a soundbite gifted to him by a Conservative critic of the Government and constantly telling ministers to “get a grip”. Now he finds himself opposite the dispatch box to Jeremy Hunt, a man whom the Prime Minister wanted to move from his current position but was persuaded otherwise. For Mr Hunt, events out there on the hospital wards and in the back of ambulances are running out of control.
Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer are the other rising talents – solid media performers who can now be easily envisaged serving in a real cabinet in a way that some of the real cabinet members seem unfit to do. There’s a case for promoting them, in all senses.
Labour policies may still require a good deal of work – especially the unsustainable ambiguities about Brexit – but at least the Opposition is showing the kind of discipline and competence that the Tories not so long ago believed was their secret weapon. Right now it is Ms May’s ministers who look increasingly like an army that has run out of ammo.
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