A close contact (OK, a daughter) asked me after the downfall of Priti Patel: “Is this the worst government ever?” Well, ‘ever’ is a big word, and the tenures of King John, Stanley Baldwin and John Major must, at the very least, run it a close second.
Theresa May – after being humiliated by an unnecessary general election, dithering over Brexit, seeing her Cabinet fall apart, failing to act on disloyalty and dissent within her own ranks, and refusing to act on issues such as Universal Credit which threaten the fabric of a decent society – is prime minister in name only. She responds – badly – to events rather than initiating them, and her poisonous coterie fails every day to do more that Sellotape over the cracks.
All of which should be good news for the Left. But, as Stephen Pound points out elsewhere in Tribune, thoughts of another, pre-Christmas election are – almost certainly – bogus because of the terms of the crooked fixed-term parliament legislation. And because the Tories may be an undisciplined rabble at the moment at every level, but they are not stupid. And because of the sordid deal with the DUP. And because the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid would, at a pinch, side with the Tories to prevent a premature poll. Even Lord Archer, the former jailbird and Tory co-chairman, offered the advice that his party “couldn’t win” under Mrs May’s struggling leadership this year or next. Which may be like taking childcare advice from Herod, but is true nonetheless.
On her crumbling Cabinet, Mrs May replaced “knee-toucher” Sir Michael Fallon as defence secretary with Gavin Williamson, a man with no military experience best known for having a pet tarantula in an attempt to create a personality. And whose record as Chief Whip would be acceptable if it wasn’t for all the rebellions, resignations and procedural cock-ups he failed to cope with.
Ms Patel was replaced as international development secretary with Penny Mordaunt, another Leaver appointed to maintain the delicate Brexit and gender balance, sort of, within the Cabinet. While her gap year experiences working in hospitals and orphanages of post-revolutionary Romania were creditable, she has been best known during her parliamentary career for appearing on Splash!
The PM’s deputy, first minister of state Damien Green, is under investigation by the Cabinet Office for his alleged past behaviour, while the furore over claims by a a former senior police officer that porn was found on an office computer add to the perceived climate of sleaze. The Paradise Papers exposed more tav avoidance at the heart of the Establishment. And 40 Conservative MPs are reported to have joined plots to oust Mrs May.
At the time of writing, there is much talk about her next reshuffle being much bigger. One action being touted by panicky Tories is that she should “lance both boils” over Brexit by dumping both Phillip Hammond and Boris Johnson. Chancellor Hammond, the man who came up with the dementia tax, still has a make-or-break Budget to deliver and we’ll see what happens with that. But by any standards, in whatever party, Boris deserves to be sacked. His disloyalty based on personal ambition has been on show for a long time. As Foreign Secretary, he is an embarrassment – his cock-up over the comments which could double the jail term of an innocent British mum in Iran is just one of many. And in public perception he has turned from the loveable, roguish clown on Have I Got News For You to the evil clown in Stephen King’s It!
Will he be sacked? Don’t count on it, if only because of the Brexit mayhem. The latest twist is Mrs May’s decision – with negotiations of the “divorce” bill still ongoing – to introduce a clause insisting that Britain will leave the EU at the eleventh hour of March 29 2019, denying any wriggle room. That was to shore up her fast-disappearing support from Brexiteers. In this context, it smacks of the back-of-an-envelope approach which has been the mark of her negotiations from day one. And now we know that Boris and Michael Gove blackmailed the PM into a form of sabre-rattling which will certainly jeopardise the EU negotiations and wreck any potential pre-Brexit trade deal, delivering a TKO to the PM. They, rather than the temporary tenant of No 10, seem to be in charge. So, to answer the question posed at the start of this column: the jury’s still out.