There is a lot of unhappiness among senior Cabinet members and the wider Conservative parliamentary party over the way she conducted the election campaign. Yet, there is also no clear agreement within the Party on a credible alternative leader, nor a strong appetite for an imminent leadership contest. Addressing a meeting of the Conservative parliamentary party (the 1922 Committee), the Prime Minister was reported as saying “I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it.”
In an attempt to relaunch her premiership, the Prime Minister completed her cabinet reshuffle over the weekend. In a sign of how damaged her authority is, nearly all key players, including even the Chancellor, were reappointed to their current positions. The notable changes that did occur include the promotion of Damian Green as ‘First Secretary of State,’ the promotion of David Gauke to Work and Pensions, and the return of Michael Gove in the Cabinet, as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Notable appointments amongst the junior ranks included the return of arch-Brexiteers Dominic Raab to Justice and Steve Baker to DExEU, and the appointment of George Osborne-ally Claire Perry to BEIS. In a surprise move, David Jones has been sacked as Brexit Minister – by all accounts, without consulting David Davis, his boss.
Since then, however, the PM has suffered arguably her worst week in post. The loss of her Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, has already been well documented (with their departure believed to be a condition of continued Cabinet support for the Prime Minister). These departures have been followed by the departure of Will Tanner, the former deputy head of the No 10 Policy Unit and a May loyalist at the Home Office.
Appointing Gavin Barwell as her Chief of Staff is one of the few things that has gone well for the Prime Minister this week. He is well-respected across the parliamentary party, providing the Prime Minister with that vital bridge to her backbenchers which was so lacking in the last parliament. Though the awful events at Grenfell have invited scrutiny of his tenure as Housing Minister.
In terms of major policy implications, there has been further indications that the Government may need to adopt a more ‘soft Brexit’. Emboldened by a wounded Prime Minister and precarious parliamentary arithmetic, the Chancellor Philip Hammond has sought to soften the Government’s commitment to a ‘hard Brexit’, as has the increasingly influential Ruth Davidson who has called for a rethink and advocated an ‘open Brexit’. These interventions come, no less, on the eve of what promises to be a difficult week for the Government as Brexit negotiations begin in earnest on Monday and scrambles together (a thinned down!) Queen’s Speech on Wednesday.
This was also the week in which the Prime Minister’s personal poll ratings plummeted to an all-time low, prompted no doubt by the touted “confidence and supply” arrangement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party.
So can the Prime Minister survive? With her authority within the Party diminished and her credibility with EU leaders in tatters, Norman Lamont’s famous dictum “In office, but not in power” seems particularly apt. But don’t hold your breath folks for an early election. There’s nothing quite like the prospect of a Labour victory at an October election or the prospect of a Boris Johnson premiership to rally Conservative MPs behind the Prime Minister.
For that reason, searching questions about the future direction of the party will likely be kicked into the long grass, at least until the Autumn, in the hope that a credible stop-Boris candidate can emerge in time for the inevitable ‘beauty parade’ at Conservative Party Conference.
What promised to be a rather dull Conference season now looks set to be an enthralling one!