From left: Priti Patel, Damian Green, Andrea Leadsom and Boris Johnson © FT Montage/Getty
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UK premier Theresa May has been urged by her Conservative party MPs to clear out her cabinet, which has shown signs of tipping into anarchy as ministers flout her authority, freelance on policy and engage in bitter feuds.
The British prime minister’s waning power has been exposed in recent weeks as she struggles to maintain order over an unruly and divided cabinet, with ministers confronting the most difficult issue facing the country in decades: the end state of Brexit.
“When the prime minister isn’t able to put the fear of God into people, then you’ve got a serious problem,” says Chris Patten, a former Tory chairman and cabinet minister. “It’s awful, and it comes just at the time when we are confronting the most complex negotiation of my lifetime.”
Mrs May’s grip on the cabinet weakened in June, when she lost her House of Commons majority in a general election. The setback also forced her to abandon her Downing Street operation, in which power was centralised in Number 10 and ministers were sidelined.
Each week Mrs May’s ministers appear to seek new ways to expose her weakness, apparently secure in the belief that their boss has concluded it would be too risky to sack them and destabilise her fragile government.
Theresa May’s grip on the cabinet weakened when she lost her Commons majority in June’s general election © Reuters
The accident-prone foreign secretary Boris Johnson set the trend in September when he set out his own “red lines” on Brexit, undermining Mrs May without any sanction and ensuring that his disloyalty became the central theme of the Conservative party conference.
Priti Patel, the international development secretary, on Tuesday proved that she could survive the disclosure that she was pursuing her own private foreign policy in Israel without telling Mrs May or the Foreign Office and then trying to cover it up.
Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, let it be known it would be a good idea to spend £50bn on housing, even though the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, will unveil his Budget later this month and is contending with a tight fiscal backdrop.
To add to the chaos, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, this month helped to defenestrate her colleague, defence secretary Michael Fallon, by relating to Number 10 a contested account of lewd comments he made to her six years earlier.
Damian Green, Mrs May’s de facto deputy and her most trusted lieutenant, is the subject of a Cabinet Office inquiry into claims of inappropriate behaviour, which he denies.
Communities secretary Sajid Javid signalled that an extra £50bn on housing would be a good idea © Bloomberg
Gary Streeter, a Conservative whip in John Major’s decaying government of the 1990s, said: “You need a firm sense of direction and when people step out of line, they need to be dealt with firmly.”
Mrs May has been urged by the Tory backbench 1922 committee to purge the disloyal and the incompetent from her cabinet, but Mrs May has so far concluded it would be too risky to create more enemies.
Anna Soubry, a former Tory business minister, believes the greater risk facing the prime minister is inaction: “Boris should be out on his ear and in normal circumstances Priti Patel would have stood down.”
“A fundamental sort-out would bring on some of the 2015 intake and take some of the 2010 intake to the highest levels of government.”
But Mrs May’s room for a cabinet reshuffle is constrained by the need to retain a balance in her top team between both sides of the Brexit debate: Mr Johnson and Ms Patel were both leading figures in the pro-Brexit campaign.
Former Tory business minister Anna Soubry said ‘Boris should be out on his ear’. © Charlie Bibby
There is also a fear in Number 10 that any reshuffle now could be complicated within days if the sexual harassment scandal sweeping Westminster claims more victims. Rumours are swirling that more allegations could surface in the coming days.
Mrs May’s aides insist that the prime minister is “on the front foot” and has dealt firmly with Ms Patel and with cases of sexual harassment. But many Tory MPs see a vacuum at the top which needs to be filled quickly.
“The prime minister has more support within the parliamentary party than she realises,” Mr Streeter said. “We are looking to her to give the firm leadership of which she is capable.”
But Mrs May is preparing for the end game of Brexit and a cabinet showdown over Britain’s future position in the world; so far she has concluded that her fragile position would be further undermined if she engaged in a ministerial purge.
And despite the frustrations of many Tory MPs, they too seem unwilling to carry out the ultimate reshuffle by toppling the prime minister.
Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former head of communications, said that Tory MPs know that removing Mrs May could make matters worse, especially since there is no certainty over who would replace her.
“MPs are on the cliff-edge,” he said. “Many think they should jump, but then they realise the waters below may be shark-infested.”