Barely five months after a general election in the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May looks doomed. It could fall any day, next week or next month. Within her Conservative Party and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in other European countries and beyond, speculation is rife that Theresa May’s days in office may be numbered. Scandals involving sex, lies and incompetence unfold day after day. The rot has set in at the heart of Britain’s power centre.
As the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (March 29, 2019) approaches, rival factions in the government and the Conservative parliamentary party are engaged in fierce battles over what kind of Brexit they want. Once a Conservative Member of Parliament and now a distinguished commentator, Matthew Parris, says, “The sooner Theresa May goes, the better.”
Ministers operate like freelance diplomats and traders, not like members of a cabinet which has collective responsibility, without reference to the protocol and the Prime Minister’s Office. Claims of sexual misconduct by politicians of various parties, but more seriously by ministers, abound. Allegations of groping have ended the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s career, after his confession that at times his behaviour had fallen short. And the First Secretary of State (in effect deputy prime minister), Damian Green, has been accused by a much younger woman activist, Kate Maltby, of making sexual advances and sending “suggestive” text messages to her. These accounts are widely reported in the media.
Further, there are claims, backed by a former senior police officer, that pornography was discovered on Damian Green’s office computer some years ago. He denies the allegations, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation. But, unlike Michael Fallon, Damian Green remains in his post.
Sleaze at the heart of power goes back to the time when Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was in office. A well-known television producer, Daisy Goodwin, has alleged that she was groped by a staff member in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence. According to Goodwin, when she challenged the man who was much younger than her, he dropped his hand from her breast and laughed nervously. Ex-Prime Minister Cameron now says he is “alarmed, shocked and concerned.”
At the same time, it emerged that another minister, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel, went on “holiday” to Israel and held 12 meetings with Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. First, Patel said that she had informed the Foreign Office about her visit. It turned out that she had not. She apologised and was let off the hook. Then, news leaked out that she had had more meetings with Israeli officials and had not declared them. That was too much. Priti Patel was summoned back to London from a visit to Africa and left the Cabinet soon after.
Leaks also revealed that Patel had visited the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. She inspected an Israeli army hospital where Syrian “refugees” and anti-Assad rebels are treated. And she was in talks about ways to divert British foreign aid to the Israeli army. The United Kingdom does not recognise Israeli control in occupied Arab territories. British ministers do not visit those areas. When they do they have to maintain a strict protocol and meet Palestinian as well as Israeli officials to give the appearance of balance. The International Development Secretary broke all the rules.
Theresa May’s minority government is beset by crises of its own making. Having supported the option to stay in the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum, she has become a fervent Leaver since becoming Prime Minister. And her calculations have gone badly wrong. She called a general election in June 2017, dead certain of winning a big majority in Parliament and thereafter doing what she liked in exiting the EU and shaping the country in her own post-Brexit vision. Instead, she lost her majority in Parliament. A number of sitting MPs of her party were defeated. She snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many in her party had anticipated.
Now, she barely governs as head of a Conservative minority government. She is sustained in office by 10 MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which has promised to support her in any motion of confidence. She has bought the DUP’s support with a billion pound additional funding for Northern Ireland. But the deal has raised serious questions over the British government’s impartiality in the peace process and power-sharing between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities that ended decades of conflict in April 1998.
In her party, Theresa May’s position is made even more precarious by about 35 hard-line MPs who would not accept any compromise in forging a new relationship with the European Union. Since triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 to exit the European Union, she is under relentless pressure from these uncompromising anti-EU MPs to make no concessions to the other side. Whether it is about paying the exit fee to meet the UK’s commitments to current EU projects and pension liabilities etc., accepting the EU requirement of four freedoms (movement of goods, services, capital, people) in a future trade relationship or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for settling disputes between the UK and the EU.
A number of her MPs want the British government to simply walk away from the talks, arguing that it will be the EU that will come back to negotiate trade with the United Kingdom. Others want a soft Brexit and trading as open as possible thereafter. Still others insist that the UK must leave the EU in March 2019, and any transition arrangement must be as short as possible.
In a leaked secret letter setting out their terms of exit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have written to the Prime Minister that after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, any transition period must end precisely on the last day of June 2021. Writing in the Guardian, the newspaper’s political columnist Rafael Behr called it ego-wrestling in the British cabinet. The Prime Minister can neither sack Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, because by doing so she will risk bringing down her government.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has a history of making off-the-cough remarks, a bumbling style and public buffoonery. Currently, he is in serious trouble following his careless, and false, comments before a parliamentary select committee. Speaking about Iran and a British-Iranian dual citizen being held in jail on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, the Foreign Secretary said that the woman was only teaching journalism there. Actually she had gone to see her elderly parents and was arrested by Revolutionary Guards as she was about to board a flight to return to Britain.
The Iranian authorities jumped on Johnson’s comments, claiming that his remarks proved that the woman was guilty, and are threatening to double her five-year jail sentence. In prison, Nazanin Zaghary-Radcliffe’s health is declining. Her daughter is being looked after by her parents while her British husband, Richard Radcliffe, battles to get them back home. For several days, Boris Johnson resisted calls to apologise for making a false statement which has caused a British family a lot of trouble. Finally, he did apologise, but the woman’s fate remains in the hands of the Iranian authorities.
So, the government of Theresa May stumbles from crisis to crisis as the United Kingdom approaches exit from the European Union, the biggest trading bloc which surrounds it.
When she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016, many people had assumed that she would be a safe pair of hands. However, her actions, her dependence on a small number of advisers personally loyal to her and her inability to win the party’s and people’s confidence have proved otherwise. In the midst of scandals involving sex, lies and ineptitude at the highest level of her government, she now fights for her own political survival as Parliament scrutinises the EU Withdrawal Bill.