Theresa May, the teflon prime minister
From election flop to cabinet resignations, no political disaster has been sticky enough to force the British prime minister out
There was an unfamiliar scene in the House of Commons this week as Conservative MPs cheered loudly at the end of Theresa May’s weekly joust with Jeremy Corbyn, shouting “More! More!”. The prime minister’s was hardly a memorable performance but for the first time in months she appeared to have had the better of the exchange.
Supporters soon declared that May had got her mojo back, reasserting her authority over the government, her party, even parliament itself. It has indeed been a good week for the prime minister, at least in comparison to the catalogue of catastrophe that has accompanied her since June’s disastrous election.
It was the first week this month that a minister has not resigned from May’s cabinet. Michael Fallon, who stepped down as defence secretary after he admitted behaving inappropriately towards women, has not been seen in the Commons chamber since. Priti Patel, who was forced out as international development secretary for holding unauthorised meetings during a holiday, has been there every day, taking part in all 10 votes on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
Those votes on amendments to the Bill brought more good news for the prime minister, with the government winning all of them in the first week of the bill’s scrutiny, which will keep MPs busy until Christmas. The unfamiliar sense of calm and normality was reinforced when she made a hardline, Russia-bashing speech of the kind any prime minister might have made before the era of Brexit and Donald Trump.
May ought to relish the relative absence of drama this week because it is unlikely to last more than a few days and her road ahead is littered with elephant traps. Damian Green, her first minister and right-hand man in cabinet, is under investigation over a claim that he “brushed the knee” of a female journalist and activist in 2015.
Green denies the allegation, along with a claim by a former police officer that “extreme pornography” was found on the minister’s computer at Westminster almost a decade ago. Even if Green survives, the new openness about sexual harassment at Westminster is unlikely to have claimed its last victim in government.
A different threat hangs over Boris Johnson, who this week apologised for suggesting that a British woman jailed in Iran was teaching journalism when she was arrested during a visit to her Iranian relatives. An uncharacteristically contrite Johnson told MPs on Monday that the British government had no doubt that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday and that was the sole purpose of her visit.
If she is indeed sentenced to further years in prison because of his statement, calls for his head could prove irresistible
“Of course I apologise for the distress, for the suffering, that has been caused by the impression that I gave that I believed that she was there in a professional capacity. She was there on holiday,” he said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said she was inconsolable when she heard what Johnson had told a parliamentary committee earlier this month. The Iranian authorities seized on the foreign secretary’s remarks and are considering charging Zaghari-Ratcliffe with further offences which could keep her imprisoned in Tehran for a number of years. Johnson has promised to do all he can to secure her release when he visits Iran in the next few weeks but if she is indeed sentenced to further years in prison because of his statement, calls for his head could prove irresistible.
Brexit remains the biggest headache for the prime minister, as she seeks to balance the demands of negotiating a good deal with the EU with pressure from Brexiteers on her own benches not to compromise. Her latest wheeze, a promise to write the date and time of withdrawal – 11pm on March 29th, 2019 – on the front of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill appears to have come unstuck after less than a week.
Up to 20 Conservative MPs who favour a soft Brexit threatened to join the opposition in voting against the amendment, arguing that it would unnecessarily bind the government’s hands if the negotiations needed more time. By Thursday, justice secretary David Lidington was telling the parliamentary press gallery over lunch that the government was listening to “various constructive suggestions”, heralding a climbdown.
Hammond’s previous budgets have been politically maladroit, forcing the government to reverse some policies and modify others
Some MPs suspected that the proposal to put the exit date into legislation was a sop to Brexiteers designed to distract them from big concessions to Brussels ahead of December’s summit, which will decide if sufficient progress has been made to start talking about the future trade relationship between Britain and the EU. In Berlin on Thursday, Brexit secretary David Davis revealed one concession – an acknowledgement that Britain would have to respect European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings during a transition period after Brexit. A second concession, increasing Britain’s offer on the divorce bill, is expected in the next week or two.
May’s most immediate challenge, however, comes with next week’s budget, when chancellor Philip Hammond is under pressure to relax his commitment to fiscal rectitude in order to address the housing crisis, social care, public service pay and the disastrous rollout of universal credit, a new social welfare payment. Hammond’s previous budgets have been politically maladroit, forcing the government to reverse some policies and modify others.
With almost a million fewer people under 45 owning their own home than before the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the housing crisis represents a mortal political threat to the property-owning democracy hailed by Margaret Thatcher. Everyone agrees on the need for more houses to be built but Conservatives are divided over where to build them and how to pay for them.
Housing secretary Sajid Javid this week criticised “baby boomers who have long since paid off their own mortgage” who appeared to believe that millenials were spending their money on “nights out and smashed avocados” rather than saving to buy a home.
“Last year, the average first-time buyer in London needed a deposit – a deposit – of more than £90,000. £90,000! That’s a lot of avocados,” he said. “They don’t want the world handed to them on a plate. They want simple fairness, moral justice, the opportunity to play by the same rules enjoyed by those who came before them.”
Javid wants Hammond to release £50 billion to build new social housing but the chancellor instead wants to relax rules about building on London’s green belt, a prospect that is anathema to older Conservative voters.
Labour this week unveiled its budget proposals, which include borrowing billions to fund infrastructure projects, including house-building and lifting the cap on public service pay. Tory optimists have drawn comfort from the fact that Labour has not opened up a lead over the Conservatives since the election, with the latest opinion poll showing the parties tied at 41 per cent.
This ignores the fact that, before the election, Labour was up to 25 points behind and that it has consolidated the gains the party made during the campaign. The election also left the electoral map transformed in Labour’s favour, with dozens of formerly safe Conservative seats now marginals and many formerly marginal Labour seats now boasting five-figure majorities for the party.
Once viewed as May’s greatest asset on account of his weakness, Corbyn is now helping her to cling to power because of his strength. It is difficult to overstate the horror with which Conservatives view the prospect of him becoming prime minister. It is comparable to the dread many in France felt at the idea of Marine Le Pen becoming president or, perhaps, what some Fine Gael voters in Ireland might feel about the prospect of Sinn Féin in government.
Conservative MPs in despair over May’s leadership are slow to move against her for fear that the ensuing chaos could trigger an election that would bring Labour to power. Many are also at a loss to find a suitable candidate to replace her, a problem that has been exacerbated by the elimination of some potential candidates. Fallon, for example, was long regarded as “a safe pair of hands”, not an epithet many would apply to him now.
Michael Gove was reported to have auditioned for Hammond’s job during this week’s cabinet meeting, when colleagues complained to the Times that he was showing off by using “lots of long, economicky words”. Potential candidates for May’s job mostly have problems of their own, such as Johnson’s difficulty in Iran and home secretary Amber Rudd’s majority of 346.
A Conservative MP who dislikes the prime minister told me this week that she would not be toppled by a leadership challenge or a cabinet coup but would be swept away by her next big misstep. Friendless at Westminster and doomed to depart Downing Street before the next election, May remains her own worst enemy – and a formidable one.