Theresa May is to rebuke her Cabinet tomorrow for the way its members have been behaving over the past week. What started as ‘warm prosecco’ plotting, as Damian Green put it, has now moved to open insults being traded over top notch champagne at Westminster parties and ministers telling journalists the gory details of Cabinet meetings. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said this morning that ‘what I would say is of course cabinet must be able to hold discussions on government policy in private and the Prime Minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at Cabinet meeting tomorrow.’
Given the way the Conservative party operates in febrile times, chances are that the content of this rebuke and the reaction will already have leaked before the Number 10 spokesman has made his way over from Downing Street to brief journalists after the meeting. Tory MPs love nothing better than to tell journalists that they’ve been told not to leak something – and journalists love nothing more than to write up that they’ve been passed this snippet too. But Philip Hammond also showed a surprising amount of naivety in thinking that he was making remarks in a genuinely confidential setting, given the way Cabinet discussions generally make their way into the newspapers over the following days, and given the way his own previous politically unpalatable comments to MPs in private have gone public and caused rows.
What was more surprising – and impressive – was the way Number 10 was initially able to keep a lid on Cabinet ministers being unhelpful in public while the government was trying to ensure that it could actually exist through its negotiations with the DUP. But with the existential crisis following the election now over, and the government unable to do very much other than scratch its head about Brexit, ministers now feel free to let out everything they’ve been bottling up.
There are a number of different reasons for the open warfare we have seen over the past week. it is not as simple as Philip Hammond tried to suggest on Marr yesterday. There is resentment between Remainers and Brexiteers, for sure, but Tim Shipman, whose Sunday Times analysis of the Tory turmoil was one of the key pieces setting out the plotting and arguments that are taking place, has insisted that some of his sources for the story about Hammond claiming public sector workers are overpaid were not just Brexiteers but allies of the Chancellor. There is also resentment that the Chancellor is now running a hostile operation to Downing Street, and that he is resisting calls to relax austerity, particularly when it comes to public sector pay. Cabinet ministers are acutely aware of the damage that the row over the pay cap has done to the Tory party, and would have been shaken by Hammond’s apparent complacency about the matter when he spoke about it at Cabinet. It’s no wonder that they were happy to talk to journalists about the content of the discussion.
There is of course the leadership factor, both in terms of Theresa May being present but not powerful, but also in terms of the burning ambitions of many ministers to replace her. Those supporting some of the future contenders are constantly talking down their rivals and causing resentment between the camps and among MPs who just want to get on with doing a little bit of governing.
And there is a sense that anyone can say anything on any matter. David Davis kicked off more negotiations with Michel Barnier this morning on behalf of a government that has at least three different positions on how long the transitional period should be between a deal being reached and Britain leaving the European Union. The government is unclear on so many major questions that Cabinet ministers who are individually clear are able to say what they think without being told that they’ve crossed the line because there simply is no line.
And what are the consequences of May’s rebuke anyway? Can she really threaten anything as a punishment for further bad behaviour? Katy examines whether the Prime Minister can actually sack anyone in this post. Perhaps she needs to enlist her party to help with this: I reported on Friday that there is growing frustration among senior backbenchers about the jostling at the top of the party, and that other MPs are also furious about the way their colleagues are destabilising the government further with what they regard as selfish behaviour. It may be that the real rebuke needs to come from the 1922 Committee and the backbenchers in the Parliamentary party. After all, as the people who will vote on who should be the leadership candidates to go to the wider Conservative party, they have considerably more power than Theresa May will ever manage to regain.