With Theresa May away in Davos this week, pressure has continued to mount on her at home. The latest drama begun with a tweet from Nick Boles who criticised the lack of ambition of the Government. This was followed by Sir Nicholas Soames who branded Theresa May’s vision as “dull, dull, dull.” The drama threatened to blow into a full-brown crisis when media reports indicated a vote of no confidence in Theresa May may be imminent.
Additionally, Theresa May has also had to deal with calls from Boris Johnson for more money for the NHS and Chancellor Philip Hammond angering Tory Brexiteers by calling for a soft Brexit. This caused new chairman of the European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg to intervene who called for a fundamental change in ministers tone on Brexit.
So how much trouble is the Prime Minister in? In regards to a vote of no confidence in her leadership, no-one can be totally sure. A quirk of the Conservative leadership system is that only the chairman of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady will be aware of how many letters he has been sent calling for this vote. This vote would be triggered if Mr Brady receives 48 letters, 15% of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. It is hard to predict with any certainty how many letters Mr Brady has.
Events are starting to move in an ominous direction for the Prime Minister though. Firstly, the Brexiteers are starting to mobilise. Secondly, the criticism of May is becoming public. Thirdly, the botched reshuffle highlighted how little authority the Prime Minister has. This is a powerful combination. This led to Philip Hammond calling on rebel Tories to “stick with” Theresa May.
Theresa May’s position has been under threat since the disastrous General Election. Famously described by George Osborne as a “dead woman walking” on the weekend after the election, nothing has changed since then. Theresa May has always been at the whim of her backbenchers. If the mood is turning bleaker then Theresa May’s grip on power is likely to be fading fast.
What may save her, is the only thing that has been saving her to date, mainly the Conservative Party doesn’t want a leadership contest and there is no obvious replacement. However, this won’t last for ever. Theresa May and the Conservative leadership remain in a state of stasis. A leader with no vision and no plan will always be on borrowed time. And that is what it is increasingly feeling like with this Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson is a politician who divides opinion; a marmite figure if you will. Not many sit on the fence when it comes to the Foreign Secretary. Boris is also a figure it is hard to keep out of the news. His ‘unique’ style and tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time makes him a journalist’s dream. Qualities that some might argue are not becoming of a Foreign Secretary.
This week Boris has found himself under pressure again following comments he made to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Foreign Secretary stated that a British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe jailed in Iran had been teaching people journalism at the time of her arrest. Her family and employer have always maintained she was on holiday at the time of the arrest. The Iranian judiciary and media have seized upon these comments and claimed he has now revealed the truth about her actions. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already been sentenced to five years in jail, but could now see this sentence increase as a result of the remarks.
Mr Johnson has since apologised if his comments had “caused anxiety.” This apology of sorts does not go far enough for many and senior Conservatives have called for the Foreign Secretary to be sacked. Mr Johnson has also said that he is willing to meet the husband of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe before he visits Iran in a couple of weeks. This is a trip which could have potentially serious ramifications for his future.
When considering whether the Foreign Secretary should be sacked, it is important to remember we don’t live in normal political times and he is not a normal case.
Presently, Theresa May has limited power. Two Secretaries of State, Sir Michael Fallon and Priti Patel have just resigned from the Government. Parliamentary arithmetic is difficult and Brexit legislation dividing the party is coming fast down the line. This is not an ideal time to sack your Brexiteer Foreign Secretary.
Furthermore, for all his faults Boris is a ‘Heineken politician.’ He reaches the parts of the electorate few other can’t. He was the Conservative candidate who won the mayoralty in Labour London twice. He was the spearhead behind Vote Leave’s success in the EU Referendum. This would be a man people could flock to on the backbenches.
When deciding her next move the Prime Minister has a lot to consider. Britain cannot afford to have a Foreign Secretary who endangers the lives of our citizens abroad. However does the Prime Minister have the authority to carry out the sacking and would she survive the resulting repercussions? It is an unenviable position for a Prime Minister already on life support to face.
It has been an exhilarating week in Parliament. The Repeal Bill has passed its second reading, the Government has u-turned on the public sector pay cap and Labour gained victories on NHS pay and tuition fees. It has been quite a few days before recess.
Unfortunately, it has also been the week where terror has returned to the country. An explosion at Parsons Green Tube Station saw a number of people injured, although thankfully it appears no loss of life or life threatening injuries. This has led to the Prime Minister raising the security level to critical from severe, meaning an attack is believed to be imminent.
It is amidst this backdrop that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has decided that now is the time to intervene. In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson has set out his vision for post-Brexit Britain. Most prominently in this article, Johnson has repeated the controversial claim that leaving the EU would save £350m a week, which could be spent on the NHS. Unsurprisingly, this has created a lot of headlines.
This article has drawn criticism from some senior figures in the Conservative Party. Will Tanner, a former adviser to Theresa May called the article a “prelude to resignation” and Ruth Davidson in what was widely perceived as an attack on Boris Johnson said at the present time “the only thoughts should be on service.” Another unnamed Conservative MP described this as an “extraordinarily selfish act.”
Allies of the Foreign Secretary have claimed the article was authorised by 10 Downing Street and that Johnson was merely setting out his position. However, accepting this argument is highly naïve. When penning this article, Johnson and allies would have known it would be interpreted as a leadership bid and the resulting problems this could then cause the Prime Minister, who is due to give a major Brexit speech on Friday. Johnson is no novice.
It is unclear what Johnson is up to here. Leadership; resignation; clearing his name; putting pressure on the PM or a mixture of these things. Take your pick! Regardless, the timing is appalling and will not help the Foreign Secretary or his reputation. It was reported earlier this week Number 10 has been attempting to keep Johnson on board. I think we can now safely say this attempt has just failed! Prior to party conference, Johnson has given the PM another headache.