Theresa May does seem to lose more authority with each week. A reshuffle in which people refuse to move, followed by Cabinet ministers using the media to ask for more money for the NHS and defence. But does this make her more likely to go soon?
That the Prime Minister is weak has been priced in since the general election. It means Cabinet ministers feel so confident that they can turn down job moves, send the head of the army out to complain about defence spending, and brief the newspapers about something they haven’t yet said. But the fact that this is so well-acknowledged, and has been for a long time, makes it less likely that May will have to go because people are settling in to the reality of a weak government.
What is perhaps more significant than the misbehaviour of Boris Johnson, who, let’s face it, was never really going to go into government and become tight-lipped, is the way the rest of the Cabinet behaved today. James reports that Liam Fox told the Foreign Secretary and everyone else around the table that these kinds of arguments should be taking place in private, and others, including Amber Rudd, also chipped in to express their explicit disapproval of Johnson’s behaviour. That May has ministers prepared to go in to bat for her is certainly handy for her, but the fact that she needs her Cabinet to help her enforce discipline isn’t quite such a good sign.
Similarly, I understand from conversations with Conservative MPs today that there is no greater appetite to get rid of May than there was a few months ago. They agree that she’s weak and they think she lacks a sense of vision for what she wants to do while in government, but they also think that it would be better for everyone if she stayed on until the Brexit negotiations had concluded and Britain had formally left the European Union. This, too, is handy, but it shows how much of May’s longevity is predicated on her backbenchers and Cabinet believing it isn’t the right time to shift her, than her own intrinsic authority.
Boris’s intervention on the NHS and the complaints from the backbenches about a lack of drive from the government do show that Conservative MPs are anxious that the government isn’t actually governing. Sure, Theresa May is managing to survive, thanks to her backbenchers and most of her Cabinet, but what she wants to do beyond that is still less clear. The two main signals that her reshuffle gave were that she is keen to make sure the Conservative party machine is ready to win an election again, and that she is very worried about Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge on tuition fees. The anxiety on tuition fees is well-founded, given the snap election result, but it is also part of a pattern of the Conservatives failing to make the arguments for their own approach to public spending, and then nervously falling behind the Labour party.
This failure has also led to Boris calling for more money for the NHS in public, and Gavin Williamson approving a complaint from General Sir Nick Carter about funding for British forces. It is rare that Number 10 or indeed the Treasury push back against requests for more money with the point that more public spending will still need to be paid for. So it’s not just that May hasn’t got much vision beyond basic survival, but that she’s also struggling to find a decent argument. And she doesn’t seem to be getting much help from her Cabinet on that front.