May faces calls for bold cabinet reshuffle but advisers urge caution

Fierce debate in Downing Street over whether political fallout of shake-up would be too destabilising for prime minister

Theresa May should go for a bold reshuffle with a new generation of Conservative MPs promoted into government by the end of the year, according to senior figures in the party.

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said the prime minister was right to carry out only a limited set of changes after losing both Priti Patel and Michael Fallon from her cabinet within a week.

Penny Mordaunt was appointed as international development secretary on Thursday, replacing Patel.

Duncan Smith suggested, however, that a wider reshuffle ought to come when the prime minister was ready. Many were expecting a change in December or the new year.

“When someone goes for a reason, that is a failure on their part, it is a never good time for reshuffle,” Duncan Smith said, arguing that the focus would all be on the failure. “That should come at a time of [Theresa May’s] choosing, when she can decide who to bring in and make a statement.”

Another senior source with close knowledge of No 10 said they believed May should urgently take action to refresh her team after the budget, bringing in “the next generation” of Tory MPs. However, they warned that a “prevailing culture of caution” had started to dominate in Downing street.

The source suggested there was a fierce debate in No 10 on the subject of a broader reshuffle as key strategists, party whips and cabinet allies warned the prime minister that a big shake-up risked political fallout.

Instead they are urging May to stabilise the government and reassert control after a turbulent week, in which her first action had been to make the chief whip, Gavin Williamson, her new defence secretary. One of the prime minister’s closest allies, Damian Green, is also facing a Cabinet Office investigation.

Mordaunt, the Portsmouth North MP, who has been a high-profile Brexit campaigner, was appointed after Patel was forced to resign.

Mordaunt was replaced at work and pensions by Sarah Newton, while Victoria Atkins became the first of a new generation of Conservatives, having joined parliament in 2015, to become a junior minister, moving to the Home Office.

Duncan Smith said Mordaunt was “competent, with common sense [and] very calm”. He said the decision to promote her was based first and foremost on her abilities but he also praised May for maintaining balance in her top team in terms of gender and the mix of EU leave and remain backers.

Sources said there was a “genuine argument going on” about whether a bigger reshuffle ought to follow the budget. They claimed that caution might be winning with civil servants and government whips, in particular, warning May that any dramatic moves would cause instability.

The prime minister is already short of a majority with difficult Brexit legislation to get through parliament, including a potential rebellion on her own benches.

One cabinet ally said that a reshuffle would inevitably please a handful of MPs while angering dozens more who were either sacked or overlooked for promotion. That could encourage rebellious behaviour on the backbenches, they said.

But the party source said they thought May was being badly advised by those saying that she should not annoy MPs nor cause an imbalance among the leave/remain ministers. They argued that failing to reshuffle looked weak and said it was critical to promote a new group of talented MPs.

They said Williamson and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, who was previously a whip, were being cautious, but said the lack of action risked making the party toxic and opening the door to a Jeremy Corbyn government.

And they said another argument was that any disruption could risk the departure from the EU. “Elements of the party have defined her purpose as being there to make Brexit happen. They’re terrified that she is their last chance and that if she goes then Brexit may be foiled. So they don’t want to rock the boat.”

Another minister admitted that a reshuffle would leave MPs, particularly those who entered parliament in 2010 and earlier, feeling overlooked but said many colleagues felt one was coming in the new year.

Patel’s departure came after it emerged that she attended a series of meetings with Israeli government officials, including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, without informing Downing Street.

May had spoken to her international development secretary but then reacted swiftly after it became clear there were further undisclosed meetings.

Labour’s Tom Watson also claimed that Patel had held another session with officials from the British consulate in Jerusalem during the visit, asking why the FCO had not informed Downing Street.

It has been suggested that Patel did see a junior FCO official during the trip but that it was an unplanned encounter in a hotel lobby where the civil servant was meeting someone else. They said there was no suggestion that Patel was acting improperly and so the issue was not raised at the time back in the UK.

Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist who has acted as the first female minister for the armed forces, said: “I’m looking forward to working with the team here to continue building a safer, more secure, more prosperous world for us all and really giving the British public pride in what we do.”


Anushka Asthana Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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