May's weak position means sacking Boris Johnson and Priti Patel could risk her own career. She should still do itby Stephanie Boland / November 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
At the time of writing, Priti Patel still hasn’t been sacked. Whether or not that surprises you might depend on how closely you’ve been watching the cabinet this week.
The International Development Secretary is in hot water over undeclared meetings in Israel; last night, ITV’s political editor Robert Peston tweeted that she was likely to be sacked “within hours.” The Times’s deputy political editor Sam Coates then explained she was not, in fact, going to be sacked that night. As I write, the news is leading with the story that she will be sacked “today.”
Meanwhile, calls are growing for another cabinet minister, Boris Johnson, to also lose his post after claims that a blundered remark may have condemned a British citizen to an extra five years in an Iranian prison.
That, for anyone keeping track at home, is on top of recent high-profile Tory resignations over alleged sexual harassment offences.
What to make of all this? The obvious line is that May’s failure to act as we’d expect her to at any other time—i.e. booting her ministers out, tout suite—is due to her weak hold over her own party, following its disastrous general election result in June.
It is certainly hard to see any other circumstance in which the Prime Minister retains a foreign secretary who has imperilled the freedom of a British citizen because, we are forced to conclude, he has simply failed to do his homework. As the Guardian explains in the strongest terms in today’s leader, Johnson’s squirrelly response has only made matters worse—although it does fit with what we know about both his approach to foreign affairs and to his own career.
Saving one’s own skin has, evidently, become something of a habit in the party. May has presumably failed to act so far because she believes that the only just response—removing him from his post—would cause a backlash from her party’s Brexiteers that would threaten her own position.
This is a shambolic pact that will do little for her prospects. In refusing to act, May is solidifying her image as a weak leader.
“Public trust in government should be prioritised above internal politics”
She may be holding her party together—just—in the Commons, but outside of Westminster, the public see a Prime Minister who allows her colleagues to err and disobey without any reprisal. (They may, quite reasonably, be wondering why Johnson and Patel get away with it as ministers when an equivalent cock-up in most jobs would see you handed a P45 by end of play.) If allowing her weak position to stay her hand saves the Prime Minister in the short term, it won’t save her in the long.
The power plays of Westminster dictate that this will be a trade-off worth making. But public trust in government should be prioritised above internal politics. The best thing May can do if she is worried about her perceived weakness is to act decisively, and show the strength to sack those who need sacking. It is the difference between acting as a leader and a figurehead. And if they then boot her out, well, so be it. Without the power to remove ministers, the prime minister has little skin worth saving.