Priti Patel’s departure from the Cabinet has inflicted another blow on Theresa May – as if she wasn’t already bruised enough. Almost exactly a week earlier her defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, had been forced to resign too. Such is the parlous state of the government and the fragility of the Prime Minister’s own position that many Tory MPs are near despair about whether anything can save their government. Given the critical stage the Brexit negotiations have reached, the weakness of the government is causing some alarm in Europe too. So what, if anything, should be done to salvage the situation?
You can choose your cliché according to taste. There’s buses: you wait for ages, then two turn up. Or there’s Oscar Wilde on losing parents: one is unfortunate, two is careless. Such gallows humour about the resignation of two cabinet ministers in just a week does not, however, go down particularly well on the Tory backbenches. There they see nothing but gloom. Their party lost its majority at an unnecessary election in June; their deputy prime minister is under investigation for sexual misconduct (which he strenuously denies); electoral support is growing for an opposition that is the most left-wing anyone can remember; and the most vital task facing the government – negotiating favourable terms of exit from the European Union – seems to be getting nowhere. Indeed so alarmed are European governments about the weakness of the May government that it was reported on Thursday that they are making plans for what to do if it collapses by the New Year.
It was into this woeful predicament that what many Conservative MPs regard as the wholly unnecessary crisis of Priti Patel broke earlier this week. It was revealed that the International Development Secretary on what she described as a private family holiday in Israel in August secretly met twelve senior figures in the Israeli government, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. She was accompanied in most of the meetings by Lord Polak, the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, who is also chairman of the advisory board of a strategic consultancy company which has Israeli defence and technology firms among its clients.
Ms Patel broached the idea of Britain using some of its foreign aid budget to contribute to an Israeli army programme treating wounded Syrian jihadists in the occupied Golan Heights. On the face of it this idea breaches official British government policy in two respects. First, foreign aid is not given to other countries’ armed forces; and secondly, Britain has not recognised Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since they were taken from Syria in 1967. To add to her problems, it seems Ms Patel was not wholly frank with the Prime Minister about her activities when summoned to Downing Street to explain herself on Monday. When this emerged, she was forced to fly back early from Uganda, in effect to be sacked. In her resignation letter, Ms Patel wrote: ‘While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated’.
‘Falling below standards’ was also the explanation Sir Michael Fallon gave in his own resignation statement a week before, only in this case it was about standards of sexual behaviour.
It could, of course, be said that having two cabinet ministers resign in a week is just a case of bad luck. Priti Patel’s going off piste just happened to coincide with the explosion of revelations about sexual harassment at Westminster, an explosion that was bound to go off sooner or later and is involving all parties and is far from over yet. So on this way of looking at things, the best that Tory MPs can do is keep cool heads, sweat it out and wait for better luck to arrive.
But many backbenchers simply don’t think this is an option. To them Theresa May has already proved herself to be the sort of general Napoleon tried to keep well clear of: the sort that doesn’t have luck. If you create your own luck, the Prime Minister certainly hasn’t created hers. It was she who called an unnecessary election. It was she who let her own close lieutenants run what turned out to be a disastrous campaign. It was she who presided over a calamitous party conference. And the poor judgement just keeps coming, they say. Even as recently as last week came another example: replacing Sir Michael as defence secretary with her chief whip, Gavin Williamson. This united her backbenches in fury because Mr Williamson had had no prior frontbench ministerial experience and his promotion left the impression that he had been both Sir Michael’s assassin and the beneficiary of his fall. Mrs May emerged as a prime minister who let her chief whip promote himself.
So what should be done to try to restore the government’s authority and reassure our European partners that there is a government in London they can do business with? The Prime Minister characteristically seems to want to act with caution, simply replacing Ms Patel rather than carrying out a wider reshuffle. But many on her backbenches believe that only a more radical culling of the cabinet can offer the government a new lease of life.
Some argue in particular that the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, needs to go. They accuse him of repeatedly demonstrating not only his disloyalty but also his unfitness for the job, most recently in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother imprisoned in Iran, and whom the Foreign Secretary falsely described as having been in the country teaching journalists when she was arrested rather than merely on holiday, so jeopardising her chances of an early release. Others want to see the back of the Chancellor, Philip Hammond. And many believe that the party’s fortunes will be restored only if a whole new generation of Tory MPs is put into high office, so giving the government both new impetus and a new image.
Beyond all this, of course, is the fate of Mrs May herself. The previous strategy seems to have been to let her stay in office to negotiate Brexit and then, after March 2019, to find a new leader to take the party into an election in 2022. But many now wonder whether either she or the government can survive that long. There have been too many crises under her leadership, they say, the resignations of Sir Michael and Ms Patel being only the most recent. She herself, has to go, they say. But, others argue, a leadership election now would simply exacerbate the divisions in the party and make a Labour election victory even more likely.
So what should the Tories do? Let us know what you think.