Theresa May has attempted to head off a potential leadership challenge by handing Michael Gove an unexpected return to the Cabinet in a move to shore up support for a hard Brexit.
Mr Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle paves the way for him to become a key adviser on Brexit, as well as a powerful ally of the Prime Minister in getting any Brexit deal through the Commons.
The appointment suggests that Mrs May is prepared to address criticism that she is too autocratic and unwilling to work with her critics. It came as a surprise because she has had a frosty relationship with Mr Gove since they fell out over Government policy on extremism in 2014.
With Brexit negtiations due to start next week, Mrs May appears to have been given a stay of execution by her party, who are desperate to keep the talks on track and do not want to do anything that might lead to another general election.
George Osborne, the former chancellor, said that Mrs May is a “dead woman walking”, and several Tory MPs signalled that a leadership coup in the summer remains likely.
On Monday Mrs May will face the wrath of the backbench 1922 committee of Conservative MPs, who demanded their monthly meeting with the Prime Minister be brought forward by a day so they could vent their fury over the catastrophic election campaign.
By bringing Mr Gove back into the fold, Mrs May has sent a signal to Boris Johnson and David Davis – the hard Brexiteers most likely to replace her in any leadership coup – that she remains committed to delivering their vision of Brexit.
Mr Gove replaces fellow Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom, who becomes Leader of the House, a key role in which she will be charged with working with the whips office to steer Brexit legislation through Parliament.
Mrs May also appointed Damien Green – a high-profile Remain supporter – to the job of First Secretary of State.
It came as:
- Allies of Boris Johnson said it was a matter of “when, not if” he makes a fresh bid to become Tory leader
- Mrs May refused to say whether she intends to serve a full five-year term as Prime Minister
- The Conservatives’ deal with the DUP was mired in problems as Tory MPs questioned its legitimacy and the Irish premier warned it could put the peace process in jeopardy
- Conservative backbenchers told a weakened Mrs May she must drop key manifesto pledges from next week’s Queen’s Speech if she wants it to be passed
- Jeremy Corbyn predicted he will be Prime Minister by the end of the year as he said he is ready for another general election.
Mrs May insisted she was “getting on with the job” despite widespread reports of plots to oust her, and announced she would be flying to France to meet President Emmanuel Macron tomorrow as she attempts to show that Brexit will not be affected by the loss of her majority.
Mrs May had planned a widespread reshuffle if she had won a large majority, and wanted to replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor as well as demoting critics such as Liam Fox.
But after losing her majority she has lost so much authority that she had to leave virtually all of the major Cabinet ministers in place, with the notable exception of bringing in Mr Gove.
Mrs May has faced calls to soften her Brexit negotiating position, with Mr Hammond, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the DUP all favouring a “jobs first” Brexit with the emphasis on the economy rather than cutting migration.
But Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader and Brexit cheerleader, said: “Gove has been brought back because he is a keen Brexiteer and so people don’t think we are abandoning the Brexit process.
“There is no watering down of Brexit. Even Labour has said we are not going to stay in the single market. It helps having Michael Gove in the Cabinet because he is very clear that we should take control of our borders, our laws and our money.”
Mr Gove’s return is a remarkable turnaround for an MP whose relationship with Mrs May had been dire ever since they fell out in 2014 over plans to tackle extremism.
He also made an enemy of Boris Johnson after he supported his leadership bid last year only to “betray” him by running himself, taking many of Mr Johnson’s supporters with him. Both men ended up pulling out of the contest.
Yet Mr Johnson was among to the first to welcome Mr Gove back into the Cabinet. He tweeted: “It’s a GOVErnment of all the talents. Welcome back to Michael!”
Mr Gove said: “I’m flattered Theresa May has asked me to rejoin her team. I was quite surprised I have to say. I was down in Surrey enjoying the afternoon with a friend when suddenly the phone rang.
“There was an invitation to go to No. 10. I knew today was reshuffle day but genuinely didn’t expect to get this role.”
As well as bringing back Mr Gove and giving Ms Leadsom a key role, Mrs May promoted Remainer Damian Green to First Secretary of State – Deputy Prime Minister in all but name – and David Gauke, another Remainer, to Work and Pensions Secretary in a move that Downing Street sources said was a signal that Mrs May is “reaching out across the party”.
Mrs May said: “I’ve been putting together a Cabinet that reflects the wealth of talent and experience across the Conservative Party.”
Asked whether she would serve a full term as Prime Minister, she appeared to accept that the countdown to her resignation has begun, saying: “I said during the election campaign that if re-elected I would intend to serve a full term. But what I’m doing now is actually getting on with the immediate job.”
Liam Fox, who kept his job as International Trade Secretary in the reshuffle, said: “I think in terms of the politics it’s now time for the whole of the Conservative party to rally behind the Prime Minister and get a Government in the national interest.”
On Tuesday Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, will fly to London to thrash out the details of the “confidence and supply” deal with the Tories in which the DUP will agree to support the Government so that it can get legislation through the Commons despite losing its overall majority.
The DUP’s demands are expected to include a restoration of the triple lock on pensions, more money for the NHS and maintaining the universal winter fuel payment in a move that is being seen as an attempt to water down the Government’s austerity policy.