Last month, David Davis warned that a Tory leadership contest would be ‘catastrophic’ for the Brexit negotiations. But as the Brexit secretary heads to Brussels for the second instalment of talks, the jostling among MPs to be the next party leader is well underway.
The weekend papers have been filled with Cabinet members briefing against one another and reports of growing tensions (not helped, it’s safe to say, by The Spectator summer party). While leadership rivals Davis and Johnson have been described as ‘a pair of rutting stags locking antlers’, the person receiving the most flak is none other than the Chancellor. After James revealed on Saturday that Philip Hammond had upset his Cabinet colleagues with a sexist comment on female train drivers, the Sunday Times reports that he also poured petrol on the public sector pay cap row – claiming that public sector workers are ‘overpaid’.
In turn, Hammond used his appearance on the Andrew Marr show to hit back publicly – blaming Brexiteers for the briefings:
‘If you want my opinion, some of the noise is generated by people who are not happy with the agenda which I, over the last few weeks, have tried to advance of ensuring that we achieve a Brexit which is focused on protecting our economy, protecting our jobs, and making sure that we have continued rising living standards in the future.’
Of course the best way to avoid a damaging briefing is to not say something damaging in the first place. Calling public sector workers ‘overpaid’ is clumsy at best, particularly coming from a public sector worker who has had their own salary steadily increased. But it’s not just Hammond who is damaged by this – no-one in the Conservative party gains from this in the long term. The majority of the public won’t remember who exactly said public sector workers are ‘overpaid’ – just that it was someone from the Conservative party.
What the open briefing war reveals is the total lack of discipline in the government. Now that May has lost her authority, her Cabinet has become impossible to control. No-one – other than Jeremy Corbyn and Labour – will gain from this. It’s bad for the Brexit negotiations and it’s bad for the Conservative party. Voters want May and her party to get on with the job – instead they are consumed with leadership plotting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the younger Conservatives are growing exasperated at the behaviour of their elders. According to the weekend polls, the Tories are still lagging narrowly behind Labour. If the Cabinet keep this up over the summer, expect that gap to grow.