Nothing holds you back in politics quite like the millstone of received opinion.
Leaders take soundings, study the polls and apply the lessons of history but they are not captive to them, servants of circumstance praying the Fates will turn benevolent soon. Leaders draw on instinct and principle to change their lot; they make their own good fortune.
The received wisdom about Theresa May is that her every attempt at showing strength or decisiveness crashes down around her. She is Wile E Coyote waiting for the next boulder to land on her head.
The Prime Minister’s position is unenviable but it is also largely of her own devising. It was she who called an early election, put a policy anathema to her core vote front and centre, and went into hiding when the campaign got too much. Every boulder that has hurtled down, she placed on the cliff edge herself.
Her ministers perceive her as weak and so they behave like the problem class thrown a substitute teacher to maul. The absence of leadership has emboldened bad behaviour in the Cabinet and elsewhere.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson found a pressing international mission to evade Cabinet collective responsibility on the Heathrow expansion vote. Asked at a diplomatic function about the Brexit fears of British companies, his response was somewhat wanting for diplomacy: ‘F*** business.’ Thus spoke a man who fancies himself as the next leader of the Conservative Party.
David Davis is supposed to be in charge of getting us out of Europe but the exit he seems more concerned with is his own. Last month, for the fifth time since he was appointed Brexit Secretary, Davis threatened to resign, this time over the Prime Minister’s backstop plan on the customs union and the Irish border.
At the Ministry of Defence, Gavin Williamson’s call for more military spending is correct. His threat to get it by engineering the defeat of the next Budget didn’t cross the line so much as set fire to it.
The impression of an administration in tragicomic disarray at a time of acute national import dismays the public. While some may revel in Germany’s World Cup humiliation, our European neighbours can indulge an even more satisfying sentiment: Brexitfreude, joy in the self-harm of others.
The Prime Minister has allowed herself and her Government to become paralysed by events, making it infinitely more difficult for the UK to emerge from the Brexit process with a modicum of dignity.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brexit, we are where we are (wherever that is) and the Government should at least look halfway competent in negotiating our departure. It does not, and only the Prime Minister can change that.
Mrs May last reshuffled her Cabinet in January and ordinarily it would be too soon for another change. But while prime ministers tend to reshuffle from positions of strength or weakness, Mrs May finds herself in a position of necessity. Her Government is not working and she must make it work or Brexit could prove to be a moment of national mortification.
It’s high time the Prime Minister took back control – of her Government and of the Brexit process. She ought to make clear she is in charge, prepared to make whatever compromises she must to secure a workable Brexit, and no longer willing to tolerate ministers who behave like obstreperous schoolboys.
The first to be crushed under her kitten heel should be Boris Johnson, whose appointment to the Foreign Office runs a close second to the 2017 General Election in the rankings of her biggest blunders so far. He is many things — a bounder, a popinjay, a poltroon, a scobberlotcher — but he is not a foreign secretary. His only achievement has been to make Emily Thornberry look more like a stateswoman every day, no mean feat.
Johnson should be replaced by Michael Gove, who is equally responsible for Brexit but a far more capable minister, as he has shown at Education and Environment.
Gove’s easy command of foreign affairs makes him ideal for the post and his doughty Scots Presbyterianism would bring a solemnity the office has lacked of late. He rubs some up the wrong way but he is a serious man who takes affairs of state seriously.
Dismissing her Brexit Secretary ought to be unthinkable at this stage, but David Davis has proved flatly ineffective and his wearying petulance speaks to a minister who is more accomplished at storming out than knuckling down. James Brokenshire, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary and is currently in charge at Housing, would be a safe pair of hands and could be trusted by the PM and Brexiteers.
Williamson, derided in Whitehall as Private Pike, should be told he’s a stupid boy and sent to the backbenches. Ministers Mark Lancaster and Tobias Ellwood would make reliable replacements but there is also a case to be made for International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, a former Armed Forces Minister and Royal Navy reservist.
Here we run into another road bump of received wisdom: that the Prime Minister is too weak to stamp her authority on the Government. Mrs May is seen as weak but it is the very fact that she has nothing left to lose that should embolden her.
There is little appetite for a leadership contest on the Tory benches and even less for another election. Whatever their gripes with Mrs May, Brexiteers will not risk handing over control of the process to Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer.
The Conservative Party isn’t terribly sentimental about leaders (they save their tears till after they’ve ousted them) but it respects strength and particularly a strong woman who knows her mind and tells them what theirs is too. Mrs May’s message should be blunt: Back me or botch Brexit.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was in Scotland at the weekend to address an Orange Order parade in Cowdenbeath. That’s a sentence that would ordinarily have this former altar boy and West coaster rolling his eyes more than once.
But Mrs Foster’s speech was dedicated to bridge-building — literally. She called for a crossing to be constructed between Northern Ireland and Scotland, an idea that has been gaining momentum lately.
She said: ‘Whilst some foolishly attempt to use Brexit to build a border between Scotland and Northern Ireland, we are more progressive, we want to build a bridge.’
Mrs Foster is on manoeuvres and has internal Northern Irish politics in mind but the Scottish Government’s ambivalence is also rooted in political calculation. A crossing is ambitious but there’s nothing wrong with that. It would create jobs, boost the economy and make it easier to do business.
Any politician who is against that can get in the Irish Sea.
Comedian John Melendez placed a prank call to Donald Trump on Air Force One. He pretended to be Senator Bob Menendez and got the US President to talk about Supreme Court nominees and immigration. Melendez is being hailed for the jape, but Mr Trump
blurts out things he shouldn’t every time he picks up his phone. It’s called Twitter.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).