Isolated May humiliated as Gove returns to cabinet

Friendless prime minister now a hostage to Conservative factions and DUP

Michael Gove: returning to the British cabinet as environment secretary. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Michael Gove: returning to the British cabinet as environment secretary. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

 

Theresa May has endured one humiliation after another since last Thursday’s general election, as the party which celebrated her only days ago as its greatest leader since Margaret Thatcher, now makes her the target of all its anger and contempt.

After she made a tone-deaf statement outside Downing Street on Friday, which failed to acknowledge Conservatives who had lost their seats, backbench MPs ordered her to call the cameras back to record her apology.

Her cabinet colleagues told May that her closest advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who had behaved high-handedly towards ministers, had to go and they were dispatched without ceremony.

Then on Sunday, alone and friendless in Downing Street, the prime minister faced the deepest humiliation of all as she invited her nemesis Michael Gove to return to the cabinet as environment secretary.

May and Gove have enjoyed a sulphurous relationship since she was home secretary and he was education secretary under David Cameron. One of their disputes boiled over to the point that Hill, who was May’s spin doctor, was sacked for briefing against Gove.

He won notoriety during last year’s Conservative leadership contest when he abruptly abandoned his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager on the eve of nominations to seek the leadership himself. When she sacked him on the day she became prime minister, May told him he should use his time on the back benches to practice loyalty.

Drained of authority

May has become a prisoner in Downing Street, drained of all authority and a hostage to various factions and power centres within her party. Within the cabinet, Philip Hammond, whom she planned to sack as chancellor, how has untrammelled authority over economic policy. Brexit secretary David Davis owns the Brexit negotiations and Johnson has told the prime minister to pony up more money for the foreign office.

Her backbench MPs have summoned May to a meeting on Monday afternoon, which is likely to be yet another public humiliation for her. And she must negotiate a confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP if her government is to survive at all.

Britain’s politicians and media knew little about the DUP until Friday, despite the fact that the party has been in government in Northern Ireland for a decade and a presence at Westminster for much longer. Conservative MPs have been surprised to learn about their putative partners’ eccentric views on such issues as homosexuality and climate change, and of the endorsements the DUP received before the election from loyalist paramilitaries.

Some Conservatives worry that, beholden to one of the parties in Northern Ireland for its very survival, the British government may struggle to present itself as an honest broker between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Such misgivings are unlikely to derail the negotiations between the two parties, which are expected to focus on issues such as jobs, tourism promotion and improving infrastructure.

As the Conservatives consider the fate of their prime minister and who might replace her, they must also consider the perilous electoral territory they now occupy. After Thursday’s election, the Conservatives have lost their majority in parliament and there are 28 seats where their majority over Labour is less than it was in 2000.

An association with the DUP may be necessary for the Conservatives’ survival in government, but it will do nothing to improve their image as they face the prospect of another election before long.

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