Priti Patel may have done the right thing, but Theresa May is still losing her grip on the Government

Although there was a mini-reshuffle only last week when Sir Michael Fallon was fired over allegations of sexual harassment, May is unlikely to risk a big shake-up now that Patel has gone too

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 08 November 2017 14:40 GMT
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Priti Patel out: Theresa May forces International Development Secretary to quit

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The fall of Priti Patel, a rising Tory star, came as no surprise in Whitehall. Since she moved to the Department for International Development (DFID) last year, the word among officials has been that the only development she is really interested in is of her own career.

Patel’s overweening ambition was on display at last month’s Tory conference, with a “look at me” speech comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher. Her hopes of following in her heroine’s footsteps have now been dealt a heavy blow by her slow-motion sacking from the Cabinet. The arch-Eurosceptic will be free to criticise Theresa May from the backbenches – notably on Brexit. Dark warnings by Patel’s allies that she could inflict “hard damage” failed to save her skin.

Her lack of judgement in her first Cabinet post will dent her prospects in the Tory leadership race when May stands down. By technically resigning before she was sacked, Patel will hope to bounce back one day. But the damage could be fatal. “She tried to run before she could walk and was exposed as out of her depth,” one senior Tory told me.

May’s decision to send Patel to DFID – a department she previously wanted to see abolished – returned to haunt her, as did her appointment of Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office. Both Johnson and Patel were leading lights in the Leave campaign. Both were patently unsuited to their Cabinet roles, undermined May and ignored the rules on collective Cabinet responsibility by pursuing their own agendas – on Brexit and Israel respectively.

In normal times, both would have been fired well before Patel was finally shown the door by May last night after being summoned back from a trip to Africa, with the media monitoring her every mile of the way.

Patel was accused of misleading May, the Foreign Office and the media about her freelancing in 12 secret meetings with Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during her family holiday in August. It appeared to be a naive but deliberate attempt to ignore the rules and change government policy – by switching some aid money to Israel – at a sensitive time in an always sensitive region.

Just before Patel’s fate was sealed, the Jewish Chronicle claimed that Downing Street was aware of a further meeting between Patel and an Israeli foreign ministry official in New York in September and told Patel not to disclose it, and was informed about her talks with Netanyahu soon after they happened. The claims were seen as a desperate last attempt to save Patel. But No 10 insisted that she did not tell it about the Netanyahu talks or another meeting with an Israeli minister at the Commons in September. Patel admitted the affair had been a "distraction" and offered May a "fulsome apology."

May knew she would not have a shred of credibility left if she left Patel in her job. But her departure will not buy the Prime Minister much credit. Allowing her to resign rather than formally dismissing her will smack of weakness to some Tory MPs. May’s judgement when she named her first Cabinet in July last year looks pretty woeful.

Johnson remains in place despite a catalogue of mistakes at the Foreign Office; his humour, over-confidence and reluctance to master a brief do not suit the world of diplomacy. Putting noses out of joint around the globe is one thing, but he has now made his worst error yet. He might have extended the jail sentence of the British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by suggesting she was “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran when she was actually on holiday. Johnson’s grudging half-apology in the Commons on Tuesday has further damaged his standing among Tory MPs.

Priti Patel set to be sacked

Some Tories think May was clever to hand Johnson a senior post so he would crash and burn. I rather doubt that; in doing so, he has damaged May and highlighted her weakness. The Prime Minister is back where she was before her Tory conference disaster, when senior advisers urged her to “restore her authority” through a wide-ranging reshuffle that would prise Johnson out of the Foreign Office.

Although there was a mini-reshuffle last week when Sir Michael Fallon was fired over allegations of sexual harassment, May is unlikely to risk a big shake-up today when she fills the vacuum created by Patel’s departure. The timing of the Patel saga is terrible for May. The sex scandal is likely to claim more ministerial victims. The Cabinet Office is investigating Damian Green, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister. You cannot have a reshuffle every week.

Johnson’s fate is intertwined with Philip Hammond's, as hardline Brexiteers warn that May cannot shift the Foreign Secretary without also moving the Chancellor, the champion of a softer Brexit. But the Budget is only two weeks away and so she can’t change her Chancellor now.

Maintaining the balance between Remainers and Leavers in any shake-up would be difficult. But support for May is draining away among her ministers and backbenchers, with many saying: “We cannot go on like this.” A full-scale reshuffle is May’s last chance to create a functioning government that lasts into the new year rather than stumbles from one day to the next. She will have to take it.

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