By Hamish Campbell-Shore, Public Affairs Intern
According to the former deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine, Theresa May is running an ‘enfeebled’ government that lacks the authority to condemn and discipline those responsible for a series of leaks at cabinet level.
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) July 24, 2017
Chancellor Phillip Hammond was the target of last weekend, surviving successive blows concerning what had been said during cabinet meetings. Last Saturday a report in the Sun newspaper suggested that Hammond had made sexist remarks, quipping that driving trains had become so easy that now “even a woman can do it”. The comments themselves appeared not to have damaged the reputation of the party. They have surfaced only months after Hammond was accused of sexism after telling Labour MP, Mary Creagh not to be hysterical. The leaks have further underlined the prickly relations within the cabinet.
Hammond became embroiled in his second row of the week when, according to The Sunday Times, the Chancellor was described as using “insulting” language by remarking that public sector workers are overpaid. Whilst not denying his sexist remarks, the Treasury were quick to deny the claims that the Chancellor has used inflammatory language. “The Chancellor was describing the public sector pension premium. He did not say that public sector workers were overpaid” according to a spokesperson.
Hammond insisted that any breaches of confidentiality amongst the upper echelons of the Conservative party would be handled by the prime minister herself. He said:
“What I would say is of course cabinet must be able to hold discussions on government policy in private and the prime minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at the cabinet meeting tomorrow.” While there has been no sign of a planned formal investigation into the leaks, it is understood that Hammond has had his wish granted and Theresa May has warned her ministers at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting of the need for “no backbiting” and “no carping”.
At a time when it is proving impossible to present a united front regarding Brexit, party cohesion seems essential in a bid to recover from last month’s woeful election display. Yet the internal disputes between hard-line Brexiters and remainers have left cabinet relations in ruins. The failure to obtain a majority at last month’s general election has sparked fresh debate into the viability of Theresa May as a long-term leader of the Conservative Party and country.
With leading Brexiters Gove and Johnson striving for supremacy within the party, leaked attacks against the Chancellor continuously erode moderate voices within the Brexit debate. Hammond, who campaigned to remain in the European Union, has advocated a softer Brexit, urging the Government to remain within the customs union after the UK’s departure, arguing that the composition of the UK economy would render a free trade deal entirely impotent.
Get Boris! James Forsyth on the first step of the Tory leadership battle: out tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/gCu7ropemD
— Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) July 12, 2017
Michael Heseltine described the acrimony within the cabinet as originating from “where the self-interest lies”, guessing that the leaks came from a leading Brexiter. He explained that the Prime Minister appears powerless in this situation, arguing that the alleged offender cannot be sacked because she has no authority.
Lord Heseltine’s comments resonate with increasing salience because of the importance they have for both the Conservative Party and the public. Speaking on ‘BBC Radio 4’s World At One’, the recently sacked government adviser said that the EU is very aware that the current Government is without authority. He said: “This is a deeply divided government and what they know, what the Europeans know, and what our national press knows is every day there’s a more depressing headline.”
The leaks targeting Phillip Hammond are proving more than an internal row within the Conservative Party. Theresa May’s diminishing power is being met with full force from the vote leave side of the party who see a viable route into Number 10. In an increasingly divided country, the last thing that needs to occur during the most testing of negotiations with the European Union is self-serving ministers holding the Prime Minister and Chancellor at ransom over their lack of a mandate.
If the internal structure of the party was not worrying enough, the reality that the European Union are aware of the lack of authority Theresa May has should be of concern to more than just traditional tory voters. A recent YouGov poll found that 36% of people think that the result of the General Election makes it more likely Britain will get a poor deal out of the EU negotiations. With increasing division within government, public opinion is diverging rapidly with alarming consequences.
The current capricious administration needs clarity and stability that can only be found in unity. Internal and external recovery is possible and likely, but only when competing factions put their differences aside over membership of the European Union and unite against their common foe, the Official Opposition.
A week on from the leaks, the prime minister will head to the Italian Alps for a walking holiday, leaving behind Damian Green and Phillip Hammond to steady the ship. What was previously seen as a resting holiday may have now turned into a cause for measured celebration. Avoiding a leadership challenge and crossing the finish line into summer recess did, at times, look like an unlikely prospect. Parliament will reconvene on the 5th September and presumably will mark the beginning of another equally tumultuous period in Westminster.
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