In his famous manual for effective political leadership, The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli suggests that the best way to keep your people from uniting against you is to keep them content but also fearful. At the Conservative Party Conference last week, it would appear that many Party members and activists seemed only partially content and hardly fearful of their leader, Theresa May.
Since the disappointing election in June, the PM has found things ‘bloody difficult’. The debacles during her speech at the Conservative Party conference only furthered the formidability of the challenge in front of her. The combination of disruptive coughs, a mischievous prankster, and shortcomings with security and stage management conveyed an embattled leader and an equally struggling Party. Far from fearful, many felt a sense of sorrow.
Nevertheless, none of this will be sufficient to oust her. The potent importance of the Brexit negotiations and the inconvenience of having another leadership election means that May’s position is safe for now. Despite what the ambitions of Grant Shapps or Boris Johnson may be, any hints of a leadership challenge will fade away even as May’s inevitable resignation is merely a question of timing. However, now is not the time.
But such a challenge to May would also fall short because of her resilience. As she emphasised in an interview with The Sunday Times, she does not “hide from a challenge.” In response to the plot against her involving Shapps, she correctly pointed out the need for “calm leadership” with the support of her Cabinet.
Yet the two go hand-in-hand. To mitigate the damage, she needs a Cabinet that is genuinely behind her and will resist squabbling with each other whenever she leaves the room. As such, as she remains leader, she should take the chance to reshuffle her Cabinet, not just for her own sake, but for the sake of her Party.
There are two reasons why this reshuffle may prove crucial. Firstly, it will be a chance to stamp her authority and dismiss those who have proven themselves disruptive and disloyal. It would appear that Boris Johnson feels too constrained by the Foreign Office to enthusiastically cheer his optimistic view of post-Brexit Britain. This explains his activity outside the Cabinet: he recently set up a new think tank, The Institute for Free Trade, along with David Hannan, another prominent Brexiteer. Johnson also layed out his Brexit vision in controversial newspaper articles. It might not be a bad decision to get rid of Johnson and other disruptive Cabinet members who could make the Brexit negotiations unnecessarily difficult.
Secondly, it would be an opportunity to bring in some of the younger, talented MPs who emerged from the elections in 2010 and 2015. Such a move could go a long way in presenting the Tory Party as one composed of youthful and diverse individuals. At the moment, this is not the case. According to Ipsos Mori, support for the Party among 18 to 34-year-olds is at 27% – the lowest on record. The Tories’ record amongst ethnic minorities is not great either, with support falling to 19% in 2017 earlier this year.
May should make use of the new faces of the Tory Party to combat its unfavourable image. Several MPs spring to mind. There is 41-year-old Sam Gyimah, the Member for East Surrey, who was brought up in Ghana for some of his life before studying at Oxford, who was a government whip under Cameron. Nusrat Ghani, who is 45 and the Member for Wealden in East Sussex, is the first female Muslim MP and is highly thought of amongst peers. The young, successful entrepreneur Rishi Sunak, the Member for Richmond, is equally lauded.
A reshuffle introducing some of these MPs could be ideal. Although it will probably not build up enough political capital to allow May to stand in the next election, it would put the Party in a better position. Upon recognition that it is only a matter of time before she inevitably steps down as leader, she should still focus on her Party’s future.
When she sacked him in 2016, May told George Osborne that he needed to get to know his Party better. For her reshuffle, the Prime Minister may now have some homework of her own.