Probably the most nail-biting time for any MP in Westminster is when a prime minister announces a reshuffle of his or her ministers. Parliament is like no other organisation, where you have over 300 staff at your disposal but only 80 or so jobs on the front line – the source of a management dilemma which faced Prime Minister Theresa May recently in her new year reshuffle.
Some serial troublemakers assist the process by either being so rebellious that they know there is no point even checking their phone. Others are firmly in the “elder statesman” category and so know they are unlikely to receive the call. I remember Philip Davies MP actually ruling himself out for promotion during his maiden speech.
Then there are those with high hopes of preferment. Some, particularly those who were part of the famous “A-list” project – a selection of favoured candidates drawn up under David Cameron’s leadership – had been led to assume that they might leapfrog over more experienced colleagues in a matter of a few short months.
Generally, there are more disappointed customers than satisfied ones, with the sacked or overlooked sharing their gripes in the Tea Room. This is usually a good test of character as some will spend the rest of their career nursing a grudge and sniping from the back benches. (I wonder how many of the Tory Brexit rebels who voted against the government in December would have actually resigned on principle if they had still been swanning around in ministerial cars.)
Others get on with the amazing job of actually being an MP. Most reshuffles have some “comeback kids” – such as Shailesh Vara MP, who got a well-deserved recall to the front bench. No doubt, cases like this do keep hopes alive and “encourage les autres”.
There are a few consolation prizes too. Parliamentary private secretary positions (ministerial assistants) for the up and coming and other jobs such as trade envoys for the great and good. A vice chairmanship of the party and a spell at Conservative Campaign Headquarters is a dubious honour but a good opportunity to shine.
When I got the late Monday call to go and see the prime minister, it was no surprise. Already in my 12th unbroken year on the front bench and having been a minister of state in three departments (transport, Home Office and education) I thought being rested was probably on the cards. It helped that the chief whip had already given me a heads up. If the meeting is in the PM’s Commons office then it is almost certainly bad news – only the fortunate get to face the cameras as they strut down Downing Street.
The meeting was very different to the one when David Cameron rescued me from the gruelling role of government pairing whip and offered me my dream job at the Department for Transport – a role I had shadowed in opposition only to be supplanted by a Lib Dem coalition substitute.
I explained to the former prime minister and his chief of staff Ed Llewelyn that I had been driving my tractor at half past six the same morning when I heard on Radio 4 that he intended to promote some Northerners. At that point, David exclaimed that he wasn’t aware that I was a farmer which was a shame as he had just given the agriculture department job to someone else. Another bullet dodged, but also a slightly worrying indication of the amount of homework that goes into new ministerial appointments.
The meeting with Theresa was shorter and actually rather awkward as the PM and I both started out as candidates in the northeast at the 1992 general election. We know each other well, although I wouldn’t say we were close. I actually butted in to say I knew why she had called me in and that I quite understood the situation. She seemed to be more upset than I was and we parted with a warm handshake.
Day one of the reshuffle didn’t get the intended headlines with my boss at education, Justine Greening’s unscheduled departure from government and the shenanigans surrounding Jeremy Hunt’s continuing role at health. Day two almost bypassed most pundits but the names that came out of the hat were mostly the ones I would have earmarked myself.
The hours of note taking by the whip on duty in the chamber had not been wasted and some of the rising talent had been spotted. Some of these will be household names before too long as some, in turn, get to sit around the Cabinet table. If I were to pick two to watch – how about Rishi Sunak MP, my Yorkshire neighbour who took over William Hague’s seat and is now a junior minister in the housing, communities and local government department and Lucy Frazer MP, now a junior minister in the justice department?
Meanwhile, for the first time in many years, I am actually in Yorkshire with my long-suffering wife on a Thursday. The bad news for my constituents is that I will have lots more time to spend with them. The same goes for my traction engines and veteran car and I can look forward to seeing the sun coming up over the Vale of York from my tractor seat from time to time.