David Burt’s incredible shrinking Cabinet
Renée Ming’s departure from Cabinet this week has caused more instability at the highest levels of government.
It appears that Mr Burt informed Cabinet he planned to announce a reshuffle on Monday. Ms Ming was reportedly going on holiday, so Mr Burt said he therefore decided to meet her early to inform her she was being dropped.
Ms Ming, who either sensed this or had decided to step down anyway, attempted to resign, but Mr Burt informed her that he had already had her appointment revoked.
Mr Burt may have decided that having Ms Ming and Curtis Dickinson, the former finance minister, resign within six weeks of each other would make him look like he was being deserted, but the optics of essentially refusing the resignation and firing Ms Ming looked cruel and vindictive.
It is not entirely clear why Ms Ming was dismissed. She was not perhaps the biggest star in the Cabinet firmament and it is fair to say that national security was never a natural fit. But there seems to be no doubting her integrity or her compassion, and why Mr Burt decided he could not use her elsewhere is a mystery.
There are rumours that she was dismissed because she was not present for the vote on the Cannabis Licensing Act, along with ten other government MPs. But that was not by all accounts a strict party line vote and if Ms Ming had reservations about the Bill, she was far from alone.
But her absence does weaken the Government’s basic argument that this was a party-platform issue and the will of people, and therefore should be enacted by the Governor. Mr Burt may have felt her break with her Cabinet colleagues was untenable, and Ms Ming did not apparently have the nous to practise the small deceit of suddenly falling ill.
Ms Ming has indicated that she had several disagreements with the Premier. Perhaps she, like Mr Dickinson, will inform the House what those were via a personal explanation. Since Mr Burt sacked her before she could resign, that route may not be open to her and that may indeed have been Mr Burt’s intention. But that does not preclude her making a public statement either in the House or outside it.
What it also does, at least for now, is reduce the number of women in the Cabinet to only three of 11 members, a distressingly low figure in the #MeToo era, especially for a supposedly progressive government.
That failure to reflect Bermuda’s gender diversity is strange given how much the PLP depends on women within its organisation.
But it also points to a government that seems to be increasingly out of touch with the people on the ground who face multiple economic challenges. The trumpeted opportunity to invest in the Fairmont Southampton resort will not mean much to the many people who are struggling to pay rent and buy groceries.
Mr Burt has indicated that he plans to go ahead and shuffle the Cabinet on Monday. There are many questions over this.
He must now, of course, appoint a replacement for Ms Ming. It would appear he had that in mind already, suggesting this will be a broader reshuffle than might have been expected otherwise.
Still, the first decision that must be made is whether Mr Burt will continue to hold the finance portfolio. This would be unwise because it concentrates too much power in one person’s hands, and it is exceptionally difficult to be both, in corporate terms, chief executive and chief financial officer.
The Premier will also be alive to the risk that if the economy does not improve, and the spectre of a long bout of inflation makes that more likely, then he will be associated with that failure as well.
But the other problem is who would take on the portfolio. Anthony Richardson, a former Accountant-General, is one possibility. Wayne Furbert, the Cabinet Office minister and acting national security minister, is another. But the truth is there is no obvious candidate as there was with Mr Dickinson. So Mr Burt may decide to hold on to it.
That would then raise the question of whether he should also keep tourism. He should not and, looked at objectively, he has done little to make himself indispensable in that role.
As for national security, a number of names will be floated in the coming days, including Wayne Caines, who may be loath to return after being exiled to the back benches over the Covid regulations-breaching party along with Zane DeSilva, then the transport and tourism minister.
Mr Caines has made quite a success out of the back benches and may not wish to return to the front lines.
However the shuffle works out, Mr Burt seems to be confronting a growing number of unhappy MPs on his own back benches. This was always the risk with a large majority.
More MPs would want a Cabinet post than there seats available. With the need for party discipline reduced as a result of a big majority, MPs feel less obliged to appear to be loyal, especially those who have tasted the delights of the front benches and now find themselves exiled.
So it is possible for internal opposition to coalesce around ex-ministers, of whom there are now enough to form a six-a-side football team.
There are those who love a leadership race for the sake of it, but the reality is that Mr Burt’s leadership now seems to be at greater risk than it has been at any time since the PLP returned to government in 2017.
There is a great difference between grumblings on the back benches and an actual leadership challenge. But the likelihood of one seems to be growing as the PLP’s October delegates conference looms ever closer.