I mean, we’ve all done it. You go on holiday, enjoy the sun, see the sights, conduct a little unauthorised foreign policy… Wait, what?
You’d be forgiven for thinking a mini parliamentary recess would mean a quieter week in Westminster. Umm, not so much. Instead Priti Patel became the second Cabinet Minister in seven days to cross the threshold of Number 10 and leave clutching a P45.
Ms Patel’s fate was sealed when it emerged that she’d spent her holiday both sightseeing and meeting, among others, the Prime Minister of Israel, and that neither the Foreign Office or Number 10 (unless the Jewish Chronicle is spot on) had the foggiest what she was doing. It took a particularly hard-hearted soul not to feel for Alistair Burt, who was left proverbially holding the Despatch Box and answering for his now former boss, who’d decamped to Africa – this time on official business. It was quite something to see news channels broadcasting the landing of the International Development Secretary’s plane as one might watch the start of a Papal visit. But at least Ms Patel was able to collect those last few frequent flier miles before deciding the writing was on the wall. Although it would have been quite something had the PM had it out with her by Skype…
The suggestion is now that the PM is being pushed by members of the Conservative Party to carry out a full Cabinet reshuffle, with the additional suggestion that Mrs May might have until Christmas to turn things around before some MPs take matters into their own hands. A reshuffle must surely be appealing to the powers at be in Downing Street right now, not least after the latest entry to the Boris Johnson Book of Gaffes (Vol.5).
This time, though, the Foreign Secretary has stepped well beyond ‘blunder,’ and if his catastrophic faux pas leads to the prison sentence of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being extended, it’s difficult to imagine how he can remain in post. This is seriously dangerous territory for Theresa May, arguably more so that the situation with Priti Patel. Boris remains a very big beast in the Conservative jungle. Getting rid of him risks having a powerful figure outside the tent still capable of causing trouble (although allies of Ms Patel have suggested she might “go off like a shotgun”). Keeping him simply undermines the PM, making her a lame duck figure with an apparently unsackable Foreign Secretary.
So how does this all play out? It’s inconceivable the PM will pull the trigger on a reshuffle before the Budget in a fortnight’s time. Paul Waugh at HuffPost also argues she might hold fire until the EU Council in December has come and gone. But, make no mistake. Change is coming. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be a reshuffle in the not too distant future. And the faces around the Cabinet table could be significantly different to those around it now.
What’s remarkable is that the PM’s approval rating has actually risen, at least according to a YouGov poll for The Times. Granted, she’s still only on 34 percent and is getting trounced by someone called ‘Don’t know’ when it comes to the question of who makes the best prime minister (for the record Corbyn is just behind Theresa May). But it’s still an unusual set of circumstances when you have a PM under siege but with poll numbers improving. Donald Trump (assuming he doesn’t view polls as fake news) will doubtless be calling to find out how she does it. And it’s a timely reminder of the need to look beyond the Westminster bubble.
So we’re left with a couple of days before MPs head back to Westminster. Mrs May is trying to seize back the agenda and impetus, laying down the law to Remainers and warning them not to block Brexit. But the Christmas recess must seem a long way off for the Downing Street team. At least they had a bit of good news this week. Cronus is now safely ensconced in the Ministry of Defence…