May’s Downing Street merry go-round

May’s Downing Street merry go-round
epa05408697 British Home Secretary Theresa May leaves No10 Downing Street after attending a Cabinet Meeting in London, Britain, 05 July 2016. May is one of the candidates for Conservative party leadership to succeed David Cameron. Tory MPs have started voting on the party's leadership. EPA/WILL OLIVER

Wounded Theresa May made only minor changes to her Cabinet after the election disaster but Downing Street has undergone seismic change.

May’s hand was forced by the parliamentary party to dispose of her two joint chief of staff. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill received the brunt of the initial blame for the election defeat and their departures were effectively the price May paid to remain in post.

But their exit from Downing Street left a vast vacuum given the Prime Minister’s widely known reliance on their counsel. And the situation worsened with a wider exodus of senior staff. In the days after Timothy and Hill departed, both the Head of Policy John Godfrey and his deputy Will Tanner also left their posts. This came on top of earlier resignations before the election, when Director of Communications Katie Perrior and Press Secretary Lizzie Loudon headed for the exit.

Others followed, leaving some 10 senior vacancies needing to be filled. In the feverish atmosphere after the election, it was imperative for the Prime Minister to move quickly in getting people into post, not just to stamp her authority, but to also ensure the government continued to function.

Former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon seat to a resurgent Labour party, was persuaded to become the PM’s new Chief of Staff. Barwell’s appointment was considered a safe choice given his 25 years of service to the party in Government and opposition.

James Marshall, a former history teacher, came next. Appointed as Head of Policy, May will hope his experience working for three Chief Whips will prove invaluable navigating the challenges of a minority government.

And in the past week, arguably the most significant appointment has been made, with Robbie Gibb lured over from the BBC to become the new Director of Communications. While his broadcast experience has been widely reported, what’s less known is his involvement in tory politics in the late 90s. Having worked for the Conservatives at the height of New Labour’s popularity, it will be interesting to see what comms strategy he deploys to help turn Theresa May’s fortunes around.

Next door, Chancellor Philip Hammond has also been rebuilding his team following a number of pre-election departures. Former Minister Jane Ellison, another victim to Labour’s resurgence in London, has been appointed as parliamentary liaison. And Matt Hancock’s former SpAd Tim Pitt has been drafted in to support Treasury policy thinking.

But more broadly across Cabinet, special advisers have largely remained in place. Some have even returned including former Portlander Henry Cook who has re-joined Michael Gove at DEFRA. And a few have moved around. Ex Ben Gummer SpAd Rupert Yorke joins new Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis. And Rob Oxley, ex-Vote Leave and head of press at CCHQ during the election, joins Michael Fallon to handle media at the MoD.

As across Whitehall, the changes to the Downing Street team have begun to steady the ship and should help foster the necessary change of tone in Government. But while the centre is stabilising, May’s new team’s ability to fight on multiple fronts will be severely tested in the months ahead. The country is divided and the Conservative Party severely wounded.

The sequencing of the hires appears indicative of the Prime Minister’s priorities. First, strengthening parliamentary relations to see the PM through to recess with hires like Gavin Barwell and Jane Ellison. Second, rebooting media relations by hiring Robbie Gibb. And thirdly, attention is now turning to business relations albeit with no replacement yet found for Chris Brannigan who headed that up before the Election.

Ultimately whether a change in personnel and a more consensual approach with parliament, media and business will see Theresa May reach her second anniversary in office remains to be seen.

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