“Why ask which came first
The chicken or the egg?
Were you implying
They were in a race?
You claim that your action
Is only a reaction —
And you say it with
Such a straight face?”
From Lala Lala Garam
Masala by Bachchoo
My infant grandson has picked up the term “meltdown” and applies it to describe his sobbing fits. It’s a term I have recently used to describe the tottering governance, though possibly not government, of UK’s (for the moment) Prime Minister Theresa May.
Her former colleague and previous Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has dubbed her the “dead woman walking”.
This is not simply because poor Ms May faces the fate of Julius Caesar with the Brutuses, Cassiuses, Cascas and Cinnas within and outside her Cabinet, lining up behind her, but because scandal, disobedience and defiance threaten to weaken her government and may topple it.
The most recent and significant blow to her control of her government was her inevitable sacking of minister for international development Priti Patel. She went on a purported “holiday” to Israel and is alleged to have had 12 meetings with Israeli ministers, including one with Benjamin Netanyahu without the sanction or the knowledge of 10 Downing Street. She is alleged to have visited a field hospital in the Golan Heights with Israeli officials, in breach of the official UK stance, which does not recognise the Heights as Israeli territory.
When interrogated by Ms May’s team, Ms Patel owned up to two of several clandestine meetings and apologised. It subsequently emerged that she had had meetings in London through August and September with Israeli officials without any of her ministerial team present.
Conspiracy theorists speculate that Ms Patel was and has been conducting her own private business but there have been no hints as to its nature. Ms May ordered Ms Patel back from Uganda on Wednesday. She was driven from the airport straight to 10 Downing Street and was summarily sacked. The sacking began two weeks ago with Michael Fallon, the defence minister who was accused of sexual misbehaviour by a lady parliamentary journalist. She said he repeatedly put his hands on her bare knee at a dinner a few years ago. Before other complaints of a more serious sexual nature, threatened by other Westminster women emerge, Mr Fallon has been induced to resign and apologise for what he admitted was unacceptable behaviour today, though it may have been acceptable or overlooked 10 years ago. Now there is an investigation into her closest ally and adviser Damian Green, for similar sexual misdemeanours.
And then last week the blundering foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, known for his undiplomatic comments, put a fat foot in his loud mouth again. A British citizen called Nazanin Ratcliffe took her infant daughter a year ago to Iran where Nazanin’s parents live. She was arrested in Iran and jailed for allegedly being an enemy of the Iranian government. Nazanin, her husband and her lawyers insist that this is a completely unfounded and ridiculous charge as she went on holiday to get her daughter to meet her parents. They appealed to the UK foreign office to secure her release.
The foreign secretary did intervene — and made it worse. He told a Westminster parliamentary committee that Nazanin had been in Iran to train journalists. The Iranian authorities seized on this top-level British ministerial statement as proof of her guilt and have threatened her with a five-year extension to her sentence in one of Iran’s notorious prisons.
Mr Johnson compounded his unfounded statement by saying on the radio that he had said what he did to demonstrate to the Iranians that training journalists was not a crime. The Iranian regime doesn’t agree.
There have subsequently been calls for Mr Johnson to resign and he may well do, even before this column goes to print. He is no stranger to controversy and has made statements which contradict government policy which Ms May, unlike others in her party, didn’t see as a sacking offence. She blithely said, “Boris is Boris!” This may sound as profound as her former statement on the occasion of assuming the prime ministership, which was “Brexit means Brexit!” Or it may simply be a variation on the proverbial “boys will be boys” even after I make them foreign secretary.
The conspiracy theorists claim that Mr Johnson’s blunders are calculated to test Ms May’s tenacity and they serve as a demonstration of her inability to move against him. Conspiracy-wallas could go further and say Mr Johnson is baiting Ms May in an attempt to get sacked from the Cabinet in order to be free to form a faction of the party to launch his leadership bid. To do that from within the Cabinet would seem inordinately disloyal; from the back-benches it could be legitimate dissent and offer a serious alternative.
One may contend that ministers come and go and Prime Ministers can play them like skittles, knocking down and setting up other members of their party. For weak and wobbly May this is not a routine option.
The issue that has bedevilled her party for five to six decades now is the split in opinion over Europe. Her present Chancellor, Philip Hammond is very wary of the immediate consequences on the UK economy of Brexit and wants as long a transition period as he can convince his Cabinet colleagues and Parliament to sanction. Others in the Cabinet want a clean break as soon as possible and damn the consequences. Mr Hammond’s other dilemma is Ms May’s bid to outbid Labour for the popular vote. She has made all sorts of statements on housing, on student loans, on welfare payments, etc, to win the mass of voters over.
Mr Hammond has to square the costs of these half-promises with the vaunted policy of the Tories to keep taxes low and to steadily and drastically reduce the national debt. How Houdini Hammond will escape from this trap is yet to be seen. If he can’t, he may also be shown the door. Meltdown?