Isabel Hardman reports on the dysfunction of Theresa May’s government in the wake of Boris Johnson’s latest blunder and the freelancing foreign policy of the international development secretary Priti Patel:
The message that this sends out to other ministers – and other governments – is that you can basically plough your own furrow as a Cabinet Minister without any accountability. The government is in such a mess, and Theresa May so terrified of more allegations of sexual harassment against other ministers, that even reshuffling ministers who are flagrantly ignoring Downing Street or putting British citizens at risk is too difficult.
Beneath all these rows is the day-to-day business of government. And the ambition of May’s apparently ‘radical’ administration now seems to be do little more than survive and avoid any more rows. That is stagnation, not government, and is hardly an aspiration. Westminster has been nicknamed ‘Pestminster’ over the sexual harassment allegations, but a more accurate term might be ‘Messminster’ as no-one in government seems to be able to handle anything properly.
May’s government is plagued by two major weaknesses that undermine everything it tries to do: many of the people in the highest offices aren’t up to their jobs or have done things that should cause them to lose those jobs, and the prime minister is so weak politically that she cannot afford to get rid of any of them. The Conservatives’ fear of another general election has so paralyzed them that they are forced to endure a buffoonish Foreign Secretary who regularly embarrasses the U.K. and in some cases causes real harm. In this instance, he potentially put Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a wrongfully detained British citizen, at greater risk by falsely claiming that she was in Iran to train journalists when she was doing nothing of the kind. Then when he was called out for the serious error, he made the least effort possible to correct the matter and offered no apology for his mistake. Alex Massie comments:
To put it another way, it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which previous foreign secretaries such as Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd or Jack Straw would have made quite this kind of blunder. A mistake, remember, that seems quite likely to result in a British citizen being incarcerated in an Iranian prison for five more years. One assumes they would have read their brief and chosen their words appropriately.
Even if you take the charitable view of Johnson’s conduct – that he misspoke and will do his best to undo the consequences of his carelessness – it remains the case that this error simply confirms what many people have long suspected about Johnson: he’s neither interested in, nor capable of, doing his job properly. That being so, you wonder why he continues in office.
Johnson’s error is just the latest in a series of episodes in which he has demonstrated his ineptitude as a diplomat. If it were a one-off mistake, that would be bad enough, but it is part of a pattern of incompetence that has already made him the laughingstock of Europe. It is no wonder that so many opposition MPs are calling for his resignation and many Tories are losing whatever patience they had with him. Hardman reports in a separate post:
It’s not just those in other parties who are furious with Boris. One senior Tory I spoke to after the statement described the Foreign Secretary as having ‘no dignity and integrity’ [bold mine-DL], adding that ‘anyone extending the separation of a mother from her child for even a day would have resigned for having, even in error, extended the detention for even an hour’. Some of Johnson’s colleagues have long held concerns about whether he applies the necessary seriousness to his office. It seems as though more of them are reaching the conclusion that this terrible blunder proves that he is not.
Johnson should never have been chosen for Foreign Secretary, he should have resigned months ago, and now he should definitely go. That won’t solve all of the problems with May’s dysfunctional government, but it would be a good start.