Theresa May’s new year reshuffle was thrown off course when senior members of the cabinet refused to move and Justine Greening quit the government after turning down a job as work and pensions secretary.
Earlier, Jeremy Hunt rejected a new position as business secretary and instead persuaded the prime minister to allow him to remain at health in a beefed-up role taking on more responsibility for social care.
That meant that a planned move for Greg Clark did not go ahead, and he instead remained at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The result was a less dramatic shake-up than planned on a day that began with a social media gaffe in which the Conservatives’ official Twitter feed wrongly congratulated Chris Grayling for becoming party chair. In fact, Patrick McLoughlin was replaced by Brandon Lewis, the Great Yarmouth MP, and Grayling remained as transport secretary.
Greening spent more than two hours inside No 10 before refusing to take up a role at the helm of the Department for Work and Pensions and being removed as education secretary.
The Putney MP’s resistance followed days of newspaper reports suggesting she was facing the sack. A government source said: “Justine was offered DWP but declined to take it. The prime minister is disappointed but respects her decision to leave government.”
Greening, who is seen as on the modernising wing of the Conservative party, was praised by the party’s leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, and backbencher, Heidi Allen.
Davidson said she was sorry to see the minister go
Allen said she was “bitterly disappointed” for her colleague, adding: “A dreadful shame we have lost such a progressive, listening, compassionate woman from government”.
Another Tory MP, speaking anonymously, told the Guardian it was a “dreadful error to let her go”, adding: “May gives in to the boys but effectively sacks a woman born and raised in Rotherham, who went to the local comprehensive, who is bright and more than able, and who won a marginal seat beating Labour – oh, and she happens to be in a same sex relationship.”
Supporters of Greening argued that she had worked hard to improve the party’s popularity with teachers, among whom support had slumped in recent years, and had focused heavily on technical education and social mobility.
According to allies, Greening wanted to remain in position, focusing on young people, rather than take up her fourth secretary of state role. She tweeted that it had been an “honour and privilege” to serve since 2010 and would continue focusing on “equality of opportunity for young people”. The MP who represents Putney, a London constituency with a young electorate that voted heavily to remain in the EU referendum, is likely to be outspoken on re-engaging with younger voters and on the question of Brexit.
Her departure came after one senior Tory told the Guardian that Greening had been seen as too close to the teaching trade unions and resistant to the party’s education policies. Another figure claimed she had been thought of as overly vocal and critical during cabinet meetings.
Greening was replaced by Damian Hinds as education secretary, while Esther McVey was named work and pensions secretary.
Other key moves included Matt Hancock taking over at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Karen Bradley moving to the Northern Ireland office; and David Gauke becoming justice secretary.
That role was vacated by David Lidington, who took over in the Cabinet office, replacing Damian Green who was forced to resign for failing to tell the truth about pornography found on his work computer.
Lidington, the former Europe minister, will chair key Brexit cabinet committees and deputise for May at prime minister’s questions, but he was not given the title of first secretary of state.
Many other positions remained unchanged with Philip Hammond staying as chancellor, Amber Rudd as home secretary, David Davis in charge of Brexit, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and Liam Fox at trade. Rudd will take over the responsibilities of minister for women and equalities - a role that was carried out by Greening.
Sajid Javid’s department was renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of May’s domestic policy drive that will see a particular focus on housing, school standards, the environment and the NHS.
Other ministers keeping their positions included the chief whip, Julian Smith, international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, and Elizabeth Truss who will continue to attend cabinet as chief secretary in the Treasury.
James Brokenshire resigned as Northern Ireland secretary for health reasons.
Hunt, who was initially slated to become business secretary but stayed at the Department of Health, had to apologise on Twitter on Monday night for pressing the “like” button on a tweet that said Greening had quit government. He quickly made clear that it was a mistake.
James Cleverly, MP for Braintree, was appointed deputy chair, while there were 13 additional posts of vice chair covering areas such as youth, women, communities, business and policy.
One of the appointments was Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden.
Rob Halfon, a select committee chair who has called for his party to do more to win over working class voters, said the appointments of Lewis, Cleverly and Badenoch marked “Essex man and woman taking over the top echelons of the party”.
“This means we are a white van Conservative party and that is a good thing,” he said, arguing that the new Conservative HQ team had people who believed in social justice, had a strong work ethic and understood modern campaigning. “That is radical but what will be really key is whether [the prime minister] does the same on Tuesday in ministerial positions.”
Sources said that May hoped to use the second day of her reshuffle to boost the Conservative party’s “talent pipeline”, ensuring that the wider ministerial team was younger, with more female and minority ethnic MPs, to make the party more representative of voters. The changes did not see more female MPs in full cabinet roles, but did increase the number of women invited to attend cabinet to 10.
Jeremy Corbyn told Labour party’s MPs that the impact of “Tory austerity” was hitting home in 2018 and that the country was suffering the most serious NHS winter crisis yet. “And yet the government’s big plan for the new year is to dodge the real issues and reshuffle the pack in a pointless and lacklustre PR exercise.”
The former Tory chancellor, George Osborne, noted that a number of his old Treasury colleagues had been promoted in what he called an “unusual reshuffle”, naming Gauke, Hinds, Javid, Clark and Hancock. However, he said he was sorry to see Greening go.
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