Collective responsibility is dead. Long live cabinet irresponsibility. This seems to be the message from Theresa May’s government this week. After Gavin Williamson kicked off the week with a supposed threat to bring down the Prime Minister unless she gave him £10bn ASAP, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond have kept busy with a proxy battle over business Brexit warnings. The bad behaviour appears to be contagious. In a speech last night to the London School of Economics, Liz Truss – the Chief Secretary to the Treasury – took aim at Michael Gove’s eco-warrior status and the Defence Secretary’s ‘macho’ calls for cash. Even the mild-mannered Greg Clark has been going off script, rebuking his colleagues for dismissing Airbus’s criticism of the government’s strategy.
So, what is going on? It’s clear that Theresa May’s authority is approaching non-existent. Next week the Cabinet is due to meet for a crunch Chequers away day to try and finally unite around a Brexit negotiating position. The Brexit inner Cabinet expect to spend two days at the Prime Minister’s country retreat. But, in a sign of the times, the main chatter in Whitehall isn’t on customs but the sleeping arrangements. Ministers’ private offices are awaiting information on where they are going to stay. The gag in government is whether you could even fit all those egos under one roof.
As I write in today’s i paper, patience is wearing thin among Tory backbenchers over the latest Cabinet antics. Given that there’s just nine months to go until Britain leaves the EU, within the Tory party the bickering is landing badly. As an increasingly exasperated – and outspoken – Nick Boles MP ranted on Twitter over the weekend: ‘Would it be too much to ask that senior members of the Cabinet behave like grown-ups, discuss serious issues in a serious way, and avoid running to the papers with childish threats or swearing at foreign dignitaries?’
There’s also a sense of déjà vu to all this. This time last year, as the warm prosecco came out at parties, the cabinet found themselves busy fighting each other rather than focussing their ire on Brussels. It’s summer party season again in Westminster and history looks set to repeat itself. Only this time the problem is even worse. There are three factors making this bout of bad behaviour particularly serious. Firstly, Brexit decisions have to be made very soon so people are acting out in order to try and sway them. Secondly, the upcoming spending review means each minister thinks they must bat for their department. And finally, there’s a growing feeling in Cabinet that there will be a Tory leadership contest within the year. Therefore, ministers – from Jeremy Hunt to Gavin Williamson to Sajid Javid – feel as though they need to prove what they’re made of. All combined, it’s a recipe for mayhem.
Can Theresa May pull it back? It looks tricky but she’s surprised before. As I say in the i paper, she could do worse than look to the other national team for inspiration. When Gareth Southgate took over as England coach, one of his early decisions was to ditch the egos and pick a team that would work together for a common goal. England player Danny Rose has said he knew Southgate meant business when he axed Wayne Rooney: ‘As soon as we all saw that we knew the gaffer was not somebody to be messed around with because he’s dropped arguably one of the best England players ever and the top goalscorer as well.’
Johnson, Hammond, Williamson all have history – they all like to think they have achievements to shout about. But if May’s Cabinet can’t unite for the sake of the national interest, May could always try to move some of her badly behaved players off the pitch to make way for those who will play ball.