After exactly nine months as prime minister, Theresa May commands British politics to a degree few would have predicted when she took office. The latest Guardian-ICM opinion poll gives the Conservatives an 18-point lead over Labour. In next month’s local elections, the Conservative party is predicted to make a net gain of around 50 seats – a rare achievement for a government party in midterm. Not since Tony Blair and, before him, Margaret Thatcher, has British politics known such a dominant figure.
Inevitably, such statistics trigger talk of an early general election. But the consistent word out of Downing Street is that it won’t happen, not just because the Fixed Term Parliament Act makes such a thing more difficult, but also because that isn’t the style of someone who prides herself on just getting on with the job.
I think we should take these denials at face value for now. But they raise a new question that few seem to have asked: in what ways, other than by calling an election, can May use her political ascendancy to achieve her goals? One answer to that question is by reshuffling her cabinet.
By nature, May would appear to be no more a reshuffler of her cabinet than she is a caller of an early general election. She is on record as finger-waggingly insisting that politics is not a game, so her austere view of the trade ensures disapproval of a reshuffling game to which some prime ministers have been compulsively addicted. From the start it has also been clear that May is running a government for the long term, with Brexit as its primary destination in 2019.
There are also good objective reasons for May to leave well alone. The current cabinet is only nine months into the job. Disturbing the balance between remainers and leavers could be dangerous and arouse the Tory party. Above all, there’s currently no domestic political crisis to which a reshuffle could be put forward as a useful answer.
But that is not where the core of the case for a reshuffle lies. At this point, it is important to stop and think about the kind of Tory that Theresa May says she is, and about the kind of Britain she says she wishes to govern.
Ever since she threw her hat into the ring to succeed David Cameron last June, she has made a series of speeches and statements which set her apart from both the Thatcherite small state individualists, and the Cameroon liberal metropolitans who make up much of the Tory party at Westminster. These speeches add up to a conservatism that is both radical and, in that it recognises the role of the state in providing social justice, also quite old-fashioned.
The tropes are now familiar. Taking the centre ground. A country that works for everyone. The precious bond of the union. The fight against burning injustices. Serious social reform. Ordinary working people. The needs of the just about managing. The importance of government. Tax is the price we pay for civilised society. Such phrases appear in many of her speeches.
The domestic policy priorities that matter to May flow from her unusually explicit embrace of government’s responsibility to drive social reform. More house building. Grammar schools. A national industrial strategy. Corporate ethics and company co-determination. Intervention against cartels. The revival of local government.
So far, so good. Yet now, May is at a crossroads. It was inescapable that the pre-eminent task facing her government would be Brexit. That remains the case. But May always said the Brexit vote was not just about Europe, but a vote for serious social change. The looming question is whether her government has the philosophy, the plans and the people to deliver that change.
Among non-Tories it is exceptionally unusual to come across anyone who thinks May is truly serious about social reform. True, some on the left cannot conceive of the words “Tory” and “social reform” in the same sentence. But this scepticism about May is also widespread among the non-partisan and the semi-detached. If May really is serious about being a centrist and a social reforming prime minister, she needs to take it seriously.
It is possible that her strong opinion poll ratings have persuaded May and her advisers that this is not a priority. If so, this is both foolish and unfortunate. A YouGov poll this week showed plenty of positives for May: decisive, good in a crisis, honest, has what it takes. But the negatives matter too: that she is out of touch, in particular.
May’s advisers talk about this government’s huge opportunity to reshape the politics of the 21st century. They could easily be right. For it to be right, however, she has to win over the people who think she’s out of touch, uncaring or a typical Tory – not just in England but in Scotland – and to do it in the teeth of Brexit. That means she has to produce a kind of Brexit that centrists can put up with, and turn the words of the early speeches into material changes that people in the centre ground notice and approve of. At the moment, she is a long way from doing that.
Which brings us back to the reshuffle. May’s original cabinet-making was dominated by her wish to make a break with the David Cameron era, and her need to unite the party after the referendum. She has accomplished both goals. Now she needs to ensure that as many departments as possible are driving her ideas forward.
That doesn’t mean purge the Brexiteers. Even Boris Johnson is still of more use to May in than out. But it does mean get rid of or shift the worst performers, like Chris Grayling, Elizabeth Truss, Liam Fox, Sajid Javid and Andrea Leadsom. Swap Justine Greening and Jeremy Hunt. Replace Priti Patel with Rory Stewart. Promote Margot James and Jo Johnson. Bring back Dominic Grieve.
May ought to know she won’t be 18 points ahead for ever. She will never have a better chance to embed her agenda in her government than now, with a new parliamentary session beckoning in May. She will rue it if she lets the moment slip. It is her best chance to show that there is more to her version of conservatism than nice talk.