Theresa May ‘missed a trick’ with cabinet appointments

The PM has maintained the Brexit balance in cabinet - but irritated many backbenchers in the process

Penny Mordaunt arrives at Downing Street
Penny Mordaunt arrives at Downing Street
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Theresa May has resisted calls for a major reshuffle and sought to maintain the balance of her cabinet by appointing pro-Brexit Penny Mordaunt as new International Development Secretary.

The former minister for disabled people replaces fellow Brexiteer Priti Patel, who resigned on Wednesday after breaching the ministerial code by failing to disclose meetings with Israeli officials.

Following the surprise promotion of Chief Whip Gavin Williamson to Defence Secretary, it had been thought that the Prime Minister might opt for a more experienced pair of hands, perhaps Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan.

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That approach seems to have been torpedoed by “Eurosceptic MPs [who] warned that Patel’s successor could not be a minister who voted Remain during the EU referendum”, says The Daily Telegraph.

Asked whether Patel’s successor should be a supporter of Brexit, Iain Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are all Brexiteers now, so the question is to what degree do you want someone in that job to be in support of David Davis and others, and I think therefore the balance on having strong Brexit views is one that in all probability the Prime Minister will certainly look for.”

Mordaunt’s appointment has sparked condemnation from Remainers, including some within her own party. In the run-up to last year’s EU referendum, then prime minister David Cameron raised serious questions over her judgement after she claimed Turkey was set to join the EU in the next eight years and the UK would be unable to veto the move.

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Cameron described Mordaunt’s claims that Britain had no veto over Turkish accession to the 28-member bloc as “misleading” and “absolutely wrong”.

She may have managed “to keep the Cabinet’s gender and Remain/Leave balance unchanged”, writes Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, but the past week’s appointments have “demonstrated the Prime Minister’s lack of political dexterity”.

If she had made Mordaunt, a naval reservist, Defence Secretary last week, instead of Williamson, “she could have pleased Conservative MPs in general and Brexiteers in particular”, says Bush. She would then have had a free hand to promote a younger up-and-coming minister like Rory Stewart or Tom Tugendhat to Patel’s old job, “which would have pleased Remainers”.

This would have “nodded to the general urge in the Conservative Party to give the younger generation its moment in the sun, and – by signalling a shift back to the Cameron era of good relations with the international development sector – have helped repair some of the damage to the party’s standing among social liberals”, says Bush.

Instead, May riled parts of her party by promoting Williamson - and then missed a huge opportunity to bring the party together.

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