Thursday 9 November 2017

After Priti Patel

The scene at Downing Street is increasingly resembling a First World War battlefield, but thankfully the only pulverising going on concerns ministerial careers. Yesterday, as even my non-sapient feline knows, was Priti Patel's turn. From the days of will she/won't she be sacked to the farce of following Patel's flight path home (simultaneously a shit iteration of NORAD's annual Santa stunt and a middle class version of Raoul Moat), the whole episode has damaged the Tories even more. And by allowing her to resign with dignity, as if there was anything honourable about Patel's obsequious deal cutting with leading Israeli politicians, Theresa May passed up a valuable opportunity to recapture some of that strong and stable magic from the world that passed with the general election.

Naturally, Patel had to go. British governments of all hues have had very chummy relationships with Israel. By conducting her own private foreign policy in preparation for her own run at the PM's office, Patel was nevertheless working within the parameters of Conservative Friends of Israel (an organisation she formerly chaired). Indeed, there will be many Tories who think she hasn't done anything wrong. For instance, offering international development funds to the Israeli army would only cultivate support among the back benches, demonstrates as it does her contempt for her (former) department's raison d'etre. The problem is she got found out, and when rumbled she carried on lying about it. Being seen to publicly lie to the face of the Prime Minister, even one as compromised as Theresa May, is a no-no.

And so Patel is no more, at least for the time being. With an eye to the future her resignation note sets her up as one of the self-appointed guardians of Brexit, so with any luck we won't hear from her again for at least the rest of this year. In the mean time, her "colourful" replacement, Penny Mordaunt, hardly inspires confidence but probably won't be so egregiously stupid about her overseas dilly-dallies. But she did back Andrea Leadsom in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it 2016 leadership contest and participated in the famed stroll around Westminster so you never know. Still, time and again we see how witless mediocrity is no barrier to high office.

Yet the Patel affair accomplished two things. It helped insulate Boris Johnson from a world of pain. Johnson has always been as callous as he is lazy, and that he remains in position after potentially condemning the charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to a further five years in an Iranian prison is nothing short of astonishing. Readers will know she is presently serving a five year term after an unspecified conviction related to subversive activity. Copping severe criticism for not being arsed to read his briefs properly, this foppish poltroon compounded his indifference by issuing a non-apology. At any other time he'd be out on his ear, but there is no embarrassment too damaging that will see him defenestrated. A departure would see him banished and free to factionalise and cause trouble, if not collapse the government. And yet, perversely, his staying on doesn't serve his ambitions and helps his would be opponents thank you very much. This episode demonstrates to all but the most ardent Johnson fan his utter incompetence, and his willingness to throw the freedom of an innocent woman under a bus simply because he cannot apologise in good faith. It has wounded him in the eyes of Tory party members, and puts him into the same toxicity territory with your Goves and your IDSs as far as the wider public are concerned. The more people see him in action, the more the myth of Johnson deflates and his person withers. The longer he sticks out the foreign office the further out of reach Number 10 gets.

That suits Theresa May as well. She can take the 'being weak and ineffectual' hit for not sacking Johnson as that's already baked into the present coalition of Tory voters. As far as they're concerned she's being held hostage and cannot get on with the job. They might not like her for it (no one forced her to bring Jeremy Corbyn to the brink of government) but in lieu of anyone else, and because she's keeping the red menace at bay, she will have to do. Keeping Johnson in the cabinet helps balance everything out and allows the May delusion a few more squirts of fuel. The Patel/Johnson farrago has also helped the Prime Minister in other ways. The drip drip of harassment scandals have taken the back seat, which includes the complicity of leading Tories in keeping a lid on things in the recent past. Gavin Williamson, ostensibly appointed by May to the defence brief after "Handbags" Fallon fell on his sword, has serious questions to answer for sitting on complaints which include alleged criminality for disciplinary purposes, knowledge May was regularly briefed about. That should be a bigger story than it is, and perhaps it will be in time. Likewise, this week's events have temporarily taken the heat off claims made about Damian Green, without whom May cannot function in post.

After yet another edition of the worst week ever, questions naturally arise about the government's viability. The vultures are circling and ultimatums have been issued. There is little May can do to turn things around, so she desperately needs a good budget statement the week after next and a breakthrough in the Brexit talks. Yet if they don't happen and the government is convulsed by yet more scandal, the situation remains the same. It's in everyone's interests for May to go so it's in everyone's interests for May to stay. The Tory party are not about to unite behind someone else, and the wider political polarisation isn't likely to shift. This is politics as torture, and there's a long way to go yet.


asquith said...

What a disgrace to the old school!

(Did you know she is a Keele graduate?)

Phil said...

Yes, I know she's part of our mafia. One I'm sure we'd all rather soon forget.