Carrying on ineptly: Theresa May left with losing pack after reshuffle

Discarded Playing Cards

New year, same operating systems failure. During the general election campaign, Theresa May had screamed: “Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed” as she ripped up the Conservative manifesto within days of launching it. For her much hyped cabinet reshuffle, the prime minister defiantly insisted: “Everything has changed. Everything has changed” while changing almost nothing. The Maybot’s language function clearly still leaves a lot to be desired.

Related: Cabinet reshuffle: Justine Greening quits the government No 10 confirms – Politics live

The first sign of Theresa’s unusual approach to rebooting her government came with the appointment of Chris Grayling as Conservative party chairman. That it took 27 seconds for the prime minister to realise her mistake was a surprise: most people don’t need nearly that much time to work out that Grayling is invariably the wrong person for any job. An hour later, Brandon Lewis was made party chairman instead. Not even Brandon’s three friends are too sure who he is.

After that … almost nothing. The prime minister called Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and David Davis in to No 10 to let them know she thought they weren’t doing a very good job and ask how they felt about some time on the sidelines. All four replied that she was far too weak to reshuffle them and, if it was all the same to her, they would like to carry on.

Things didn’t improve when Theresa turned her attention to the less important offices of state, as nobody there was in the mood to be moved on, either. So rather than reshuffling her personnel, she chose to reshuffle the names of the departments instead. Sajid Javid went from being minister for communities and local government to minister for housing and communities and local government, while Jeremy Hunt upgraded himself from health secretary to minister for health and social care. Grayling begged to be made secretary for trains, water and aviation transport until someone pointed out that might not be such a good look.

With Downing Street in a state of paralysis and Hunt stranded on a hospital trolley for several hours in a corridor outside Theresa’s office, it was left to junior health minister, Philip Dunne, to answer an urgent question on the crisis in the NHS. Even on a good day, Dunne generally appears slow and hapless and this wasn’t a good day.

There wasn’t a crisis, he insisted, because the government had a plan for dealing with the crisis that definitely wasn’t happening. All this talk of operations being cancelled was nonsense. No operations had been cancelled: they had just been deferred indefinitely in the hope that most of the people who needed them would either die or decide they would rather do without a new knee.

“There are seats available in hospital for those who can’t get a bed,” Dunne explained to Labour MPs who had pointed out that most A&E departments were failing to cope with demand. And once all the seats had been taken, there was plenty of room to stack patients up on the floors. And in the car parks. Come to think of it, they could just save time and put the bodies out by the bins.

Justine Greening was also unavailable to answer an urgent question on the appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students – all the other cabinet ministers had dug in their heels so she was buggered if she was going without a fight – so it was universities minister, Jo Johnson, who got to defend the indefensible.

Think of it this way. The Office for Students needed people with a full range of talents and that included a professional, misogynistic idiot who was a personal friend of his brother. Merely appointing people who knew what they were doing and could be relied on take the job seriously would be a wasted opportunity. What was needed was a bloke who could stand up for women students by tweeting “Get Your Tits Out for the Lads”.

None of which went down well with either the opposition benches or most Tory MPs who queued up to question the wisdom of the appointment. Johnson was unrepentant. “Mr Young has been on a developmental journey,” he said. “And we want to help him reach his potential.” Everyone deserved a second chance. Or in Toby’s case, a 17th and 18th chance.

Johnson also appeared to be the only person in government who had no idea of Toby’s twitter track record. Love really is blind. No, no, no, he wept, Toby couldn’t possibly have written all those beastly things as the Toby he had dinner with was a lovely man.

“Judge him by his actions, not his tweets,” Johnson said, apparently unaware that was precisely what everyone had been doing. Nothing has changed. Strong and stable. The government had started the year as it meant to go on. Ineptly.

Powered by article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Monday 8th January 2018 21.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010