In the past 24 hours, Theresa May has lost two of the Cabinet ministers who have caused her the most trouble. Boris Johnson and David Davis were widely considered to be immovable, despite a number of crises entirely of their own making. The only way for them to go was by resignation, which lends them an appearance of strength.
This strength has little to do with the achievements of either minister, though. David Davis had been increasingly sidelined from the negotiation process, which does appear to have been a key factor in his decision to go, given no-one likes to be treated as though they don’t matter. But it isn’t impossible to understand why Number 10 didn’t fully trust the Brexit Secretary. He often made pronouncements about policy that were at odds to the line taken by Theresa May, and his performance over the Brexit impact assessments caused the government significant disruption. Similarly, his regular threats to resign hardly strengthened the government, either at home or in negotiations with the European Union.
The case for moving Johnson was arguably stronger. James points out that the former Mayor was instrumental in ensuring that Britain voted to leave the European Union, but he has not similarly distinguished himself as Foreign Secretary. His comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe rightly caused the greatest row, given it allowed the Iranian regime to argue that it really did have grounds for suspicion that she was training journalists in the country. But the remark about clearing away the dead bodies in Sirte also suggested that he hadn’t managed to adopt the mindset of Foreign Secretary, who after all is the leader of British diplomacy.
This isn’t to say that it is absolutely fine for Theresa May’s authority that Johnson and Davis have gone. Far from it: a strong Prime Minister would have been able to move whoever she wanted whenever she wanted. The last reshuffle showed that this wasn’t possible, and indeed all high-profile departures in this minority government have come about as a result of scandals and resignations, not May choosing to move around her team on the basis of competence and the need for good government. It shows her weakness that the departure of her two biggest troublemakers is in fact just more trouble for this Prime Minister.