Allegiances in politics can change very quickly. It wasn’t so long ago that ‘Friends of George’ was a thing.
With the election campaign now in full swing and the majority of commentators and pollsters alike predicting a substantial working majority for the Conservatives, it’s only inevitable that minds in the City are already turning to what comes next.
So, while ‘Friends of George’ is a thing of the past, to examine who might be up and who down, it is first necessary to see if there is anything to the maxim: ‘Friends of Theresa’.
There are a multitude of column inches dedicated to ‘Theresa: the person’. She’s well known as an ambitious vicar’s daughter, who takes people at their word and who views politics not as a game to be played but as an altruistic endeavour that should better the lives of those less fortunate. She plays the person and not the ball; but that’s not to say relationships do not matter to her.
Similarly, relationships and trust matter equally as much to her closest advisors. The Prime Minister looks to the likes of Fiona Hill, Nick Timothy and her husband, not just for political direction but – and especially the latter – moral support. They’re her confidantes and gatekeepers, with all the evidence suggesting that they have long memories, do not suffer fools and will make recommendations to this affect.
Both George Osborne’s shock sacking and Boris Johnson’s rise from the political wilderness can be evidenced as reasons to believe that no position is safe, no matter how senior. Only recently, The Sunday Times and Times correspondents, Tim Shipman and Francis Elliott respectively – whose sources tend to be very well placed – used their columns (here and here) to suggest that the Chancellor himself could be vulnerable in a post-election reshuffle, and one struggles to find anyone who currently believes Liz Truss will remain at the Ministry of Justice.
There are clearly too many positions, individuals and moving parts to list every possible outcome and every viable scenario. Reshuffle speculation is a mug’s game after all, but let’s look at seven people who could be on the up.
Of those who currently have jobs, the venerable Damian Green immediately comes to mind and should be watched. He’s brought the tricky DWP brief under his wing and nurtured both his Department and the industry – it’s not all perfect, admittedly, and it could be argued that his successes are inherited from policies put in place by his able predecessor Stephen Crabb, but it’s a long time since we have heard of a struggling Universal Credit policy and employment figures continue to display a positive trend. Perhaps more significant, though, is his relationship with Theresa May. Green, a contemporary of hers at Oxford who succeeded both her and her husband as President of the Edmund Burke Society, was a member of the same intake of MPs as May in 1997 and was also a fellow Home Office Minister until 2014. They were friends from a young age and have remained so ever since.
Similarly, May found another friend at Oxford in Alan Duncan, who was elected to Westminster in 1992 and who – surely by no coincidence – is charged with a junior Foreign Office role that enables him to monitor the activities of one of the three Brexiteers, Boris Johnson. Of the remaining trio, Liam Fox, a longtime personal friend who (having himself been defeated in the leadership election) memorably introduced May immediately prior to her official campaign launch in Birmingham only ten months ago. There are many reports referencing the two sharing cosy Westminster-based lunches, which inevitably led to conspiracy theories despite the fact they might merely have been sharing anecdotes about their mutual struggles during Hagues’ tenure as leader.
And what of the remaining Brexiteer? Theresa replaced David Davis as Party Chairman to become the first female to take the role, subsequently considered challenging him for the Tory leadership in 2005, and struggled with his stance of civil liberties during her tenure in the Home Office. However, while not natural allies on paper, since being elevated to Cabinet status he has gained her trust – to the point where he was one of the few to learn in advance that a General Election would take place – and has demonstrated himself adept at handling one of the most difficult portfolios in Government. It’s hard to see him moving.
Looking elsewhere across Government and my eyes fall on Transport. The Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, first ran an election campaign in Durnsford in 1990 and fought another notable one in 2016, both of which were on behalf of one Theresa May. The former to see her re-elected to Merton Council and the most recent to see her elevated to lead her Party. He might be a polarising figure among Cameroons but it’s a brave new world now.
Finally – to complete the seven – two backbenchers are worth paying attention to. The first, Shailesh Vara, has been involved in Conservative politics since the 80s and worked alongside May during her time as Party Chairman before he even reached Parliament. When he did reach the green benches, he was quickly elevated to become her deputy as Shadow Deputy Leader of the House and they have been close ever since. The second, Oliver Coleville, is another who has known the Prime Minister since her initial days living in London – he was the election agent when she volunteered on the 1982 campaign to gain Mitcham and Morden. Only elected in 2010, he has so far pursued a career on the backbenches and in Committees but if he wants it, I’m sure there might be a future for him in a department that complements his interests, either the MoD or Department of Health.
One thing about the Prime Minister’s relationships is clear; they are not about favours owed or strengthening her position within party cliques. Instead, they are about trust, loyalty and ability. But that is not to say there are no such things as ‘Friends of Theresa’.
Main image by Policy Exchange, licensed under CC BY 2.0