Yes, it’s inevitable, but it’s also irresistible; and I’m going to say it. To lose one member of the Cabinet may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two seems like carelessness. Okay, I’ve said it, but Theresa May has lost it. Granted, she never really had it; her premiership has been a slow suicide from the off. But to have an already shaky administration disrupted twice in seven days raises yet more questions of leadership – or lack of. Boris putting his foot in it again is par for the course, but it didn’t matter as much when he was a chat-show backbencher or even Mayor of London; when you hold one of the four great offices of state, however, getting by on buffoonish charm isn’t enough – especially when the liberty of a British subject imprisoned in Iran could be threatened further by the Foreign Secretary’s clumsily cavalier attitude towards his job.
Boris is safe for the moment, though; in a Cabinet infected by subversive Remainers eager to throw a spanner in the Brexit works, a cheerleading Brexiteer like Boris is vital to uphold Theresa May’s pre-Election promise of a Hard Brexit. There’s also the old Lincoln maxim about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, of course. It’s no coincidence the PM brought Michael Gove back into the fold; the prospect of Boris also exiled to the backbenches, given free rein to make mischief and plot her downfall from afar, is the kind of additional anxiety she could do without. Better to have those with an eye on her job in the same room, where she can see them – a bit like when teachers move the most troublesome pupils to the desks at the front of the classroom.
Gideon quitting as an MP to become full-time editor of the Evening Osborne undoubtedly helped the Prime Minister in the Commons, though his anti-May agenda being broadcast to Londoners on a daily basis must irk her. The forced resignation of her International Development Secretary, however, is a more pressing headache she could have done without. Patel’s error in meeting senior Israeli politicians in an unofficial capacity, and without Foreign Office clearance, may seem a minor infringement of diplomatic protocol, but whether or not her error was mere naivety or simple stupidity, the resulting furore left her position untenable.
The PM’s problem is losing a Bright Young Thing who contradicts the electorate’s image of privileged, privately-educated conveyor-belt Conservatives; and the last thing a Government bereft of a majority needs is to keep shedding members that make it look as if it couldn’t run the proverbial brewery piss-up.
Priti Patel was one of the Prime Minister’s predecessor’s pet projects to upgrade the public perception of the Conservative Party – young, photogenic and Asian. When David Cameron made a point of announcing he once met ‘a black man’ during the TV leaders’ debates during the 2010 General Election, it complemented his promotion of the unelected Baroness Warsi to his inner circle as Minister for Tokenism…sorry, Minister for Faith and Communities; the emergence of a figure such as Priti Patel, actually voted for by the electorate of Witham (in Essex), was a further feather in the Tory diversity cap. But a week on from the loss of Sex God Michael Fallon for the gross moral turpitude of touching the knee of an Express scribe fifteen years ago, the loss of a fairly inconsequential Parliamentarian is nevertheless another body blow to a PM who is widely regarded as being about as effective as a weak supply teacher incapable of controlling an unruly class.
Brexiteers without Portfolio such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have hinted that Priti Patel’s forced resignation was engineered by Cabinet Remainers, whereas Labour’s porky deputy Tom Watson has suggested the Foreign Office was aware of Patel’s presence in Israel whilst publicly claiming it had no idea what the International Development Secretary was up to on her ‘holiday’. Whatever the truth of Patel’s odd activities, the fact remains she’s lost her job in the May administration and the PM now has to undergo one more reshuffle that has been thrust upon her; but it seems resignations – voluntary or otherwise – are the only way Theresa May can be prompted into rearranging her Cabinet furniture.
Patel’s exit comes just hours before Brexit negotiations reach their sixth round; to use an FA Cup analogy, that means we’re only two games away from Wembley – or it did before football’s governing body decided the national stadium could be devalued further by hosting the competition’s semi-final matches as well. The Times today reported that the EU is preparing for ‘the fall of Theresa May before the New Year’ as a result of the past seven days, which will trigger ‘a change of leadership or elections leading to a Labour victory’. This was rebuffed by IDS on ‘Today’ this morning, though his belief that the PM is ‘the one person who can actually still unite the Cabinet, the country and the party’ says all you need to know about a man who blames the decline and fall of Western Civilisation on unmarried men.
For the moment, Theresa May will cling on – and on, and on; but it’s hard to come away from the latest car-crash without concluding this is a Government treading water, feeling more like the Major administration of the mid-90s or the Brown one of the late noughties than a party that technically won a General Election just five months ago. As has been pointed out before, however, the most accurate comparison one can make is with Jim Callaghan’s Government of 1976-79, particularly during the testing time following the collapse of the 1977/78 Lib-Lab Pact. What happens next is anyone’s guess; but I can guarantee it won’t be Priti.
© The Editor