Theresa May has lost all authority over her unruly ministers. But will these egotists be punished at the ballot box?
Danny Dyer, the political scientist who is also an actor in EastEnders, has attracted attention with his observation about David “that twat” Cameron scuttling off and leaving everyone else to puzzle out Brexit: “this mad riddle” in the astute estimation of the cockney savant. Theresa May ought to offer him a place in her cabinet. At the very least, she should invite him to join this week’s Chequers’ summit of her senior ministers. His pithy description of Britain’s plight might concentrate minds at the latest in the long series of crunch meetings that Mrs May has convened in an attempt to solve the “mad riddle”.
The sage of Albert Square has only said what many Tories think. If there’s one thing that still manages to unite them, leaver and remainer alike, it is that Mr Cameron bears much of the responsibility for this utter mess. As for the tone of Mr Dyer’s remarks, Mrs May’s spokespeople have defended the actor’s right to use the word “twat” to describe the former tenant of No 10. After all, that is far less abusive than the language now in everyday use by senior Tories about each other and against traditional pillars of the party.
In recent days, we have seen an implosion of cabinet discipline which is remarkable even by the standards of this rancorous rabble. Responding to the mounting alarm of companies that we are headed for a bad Brexit, Boris Johnson is reported to have said “fuck business” and doesn’t deny it. Jeremy Hunt, a recanting remainer who is anticipating a Tory leadership contest by fluttering his eyelashes at Brexiters, expresses a similar contempt for the views of business in less profane terms. They are rebuked by Greg Clark, the business secretary, and David Gauke, the justice secretary. Andrea Leadsomhas publicly savaged Mrs May’s plan for a customs partnership with the EU. Sajid Javid continues his mission to carve out a profile by defining himself against the prime minister on immigration.
The authority of any prime minister over the cabinet ultimately derives from the ability to fire them. Her position is so precarious that Mrs May has to think five times before she sacks or loses anyone who might be dangerous to her. That is why David Davis thinks he can threaten to resign if he doesn’t get his way over Brexit – and let us all know that he is on the brink of the big flounce – with such regularity.
The most blatant offender against collective responsibility is Boris Johnson. His insubordination has been so flagrant, so outrageous and so persistent that a stronger leader would have shown him the door long ago. In a crowded field, his most insolent two fingers towards his leader was to use the word “crazy” to describe her preferred trading relationship with the EU. A secure and confident leader would have made him choose over Heathrow expansion: support cabinet policy by obeying the three-line whip or leave the government and vote against, the honourable course taken by Greg Hands when he resigned as a minister. The runaway foreign secretary was allowed to truant to Afghanistan as a transparently bogus excuse for not being in the vicinity of Westminster for the vote. It may be that Mrs May calculated that it was worth sacrificing constitutional convention in order to expose her foreign secretary to the scorn of Tory MPs. That it did, but the indulgence of his serial delinquencies has incited other members of the cabinet to behave badly.
As in schoolrooms, so in governments. If a disruptive element is allowed to get away with breaking the rules, and to do so again and again, indiscipline will go viral. That is how we get to a point where Liz Truss, one of the most junior members of the cabinet, thinks she has licence to ridicule policies of the government of which she is a member while mocking “wood-burning Goves” and the “hot air” coming out of a colleague’s department. And to do so not in an off-the-cuff remark that wasn’t intended for reporting, but in a set-piece, look-at-me speech.
I’m inclined to agree with those who say that Ms Truss’s main purpose was to remind the world of her existence by promoting herself as a champion of the libertarian right. The race to be the next Tory leader is well under way and becoming more open by the week. The intensity of the positioning is symptom both of the fragility of Mrs May’s premiership and a cabinet rampant with narcissistic personality disorders. The ambitious minister does not attract publicity by delivering speeches that loyally recite government policy – a difficult feat anyway when government policy is liable to change from this day to the next. You grab headlines by doing the opposite.
The most butt-naked politicking has been displayed by the prime minister’s erstwhile ally, Gavin Williamson. His fight for more money for the defence budget is enmeshed with his leadership ambitions. He reportedly told senior officers that Mrs May would not dare refuse his demands for more cash because “I made her – and I can break her”. As if that were not extraordinary enough, some of his allies have briefed the media that they are prepared to block the next budget if he is not given what he wants. No prime minister should tolerate such blackmail, threatened so publicly, from within her government.
There is more to this than the feebleness of Mrs May’s position and the ravenous ambitions of the uncontrolled egos of cabinet ministers who want her job. One of the things that David Cameron did get right was to prophesy that Brexit would “unleash the demons” in the Tory party. You will have to ask him why he went ahead and opened the diabolical box anyway. Brexit is not just divisive in itself. It is inflaming all the other personal and ideological faultlines that fracture the Conservative party.
Does this spell doom for the Tories? Writing for today’s Observer, Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, warns the cabinet that they will be punished for their self-indulgence at the ballot box. The historical precedents suggest that he is correct. When I first started writing political commentaries, it was regarded as an iron law of British politics that “divided parties don’t win elections”. That was taken to be the moral of Labour’s protracted periods in opposition, when the party tore itself apart in the 1950s and again in the 1980s. The same lesson was administered to the Conservatives when John Major’s viciously quarrelsome government went down to a landslide defeat in 1997 which was followed by the Conservatives’ longest period in opposition in well over a century.
If the traditional rule about divided parties still applied, you’d conclude that the Conservatives have already exhausted the patience of the electorate. You’d think they would be extremely unpopular. You’d turn to the opinion polls and expect to find that the Conservatives are 10, 15, even 20 points behind Labour. This is what happened to Sir John’s government in the run-up to his party’s thumping at the hands of Tony Blair in 1997.
Yet here’s the thing. Recent opinion polls have the Tories maintaining a modest lead over Labour. Despite it all, the Conservatives still have the advantage.
How do we explain this? The voters may be telling us that the traditional law about split parties doesn’t apply these days. The country has been splintered by Brexit and the public is not surprised that its politicians are as well. Or the voters may be taking a view that Brexit is such an unusual event that the law on split parties must be temporarily suspended for the duration. The country will come to a settled view about this government only once Brexit is done with. There’s another thing that the voters might be telling us. Labour ought to be doing a great deal better against such a chaotic crew and Labour would be doing better if enough of the electorate thought that Jeremy Corbyn led a united party with sufficient credibility as an alternative government.
The result is that we have a hideously dysfunctional cabinet floundering in the face of the most significant challenge to face Britain since 1945. They can carry on like this while thinking that their party nevertheless has a reasonable chance of winning the next election. There’s another mad riddle.
• Andrew Rawnsley is an Observer columnist