Theresa May’s conservative government has faced a turbulent two weeks in a series of cabinet resignations that some describe as the cracks in the country’s leadership beginning to open.
Cabinet in Crisis
The saga of bad news for the cabinet began on the 27th October when the Sun reported a WhatsApp group used by tory researchers to warn each other about ‘sex pest’ MPs. In the midst of the Weinstein scandal in Hollywood people were becoming increasingly wary of elitist men taking advantage of their position in society to abuse people without the social platform to stand up to them – this made the public very suspicious and frightened at the concept of these sorts of predators within our government. On the 29th October the floodgates opened as Guido Fawkes published a spreadsheet (with names redacted) of the 36 tory MPs being warned against on the WhatsApp group. The spreadsheet featured such allegations as ‘handsy in taxis’, ‘inappropriate with male researchers’ and ‘paid a female to be quiet’. The impact of this scandal on youth in politics is vast as it begs the question: How can young people safely work in Westminster when it is populated by so many dangerous, sexually exploitative individuals?
It was not long before allegations of sexual misconduct caught up with a member of the cabinet. On the 31st October the front page of the Sun read: FALLON: I FELT RADIO HOST’S KNEE. This was referring to: the defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon; the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer; and an incident that occurred at a party conference dinner in 2002. Mrs Hartley-Brewer insisted that it was merely a ‘misjudged sexual overture’ to which she had responded by saying if he tried it again she would “punch him in the face” and had since encountered no more trouble from the conservative MP. Despite Mrs Hartley-Brewer’s stance that the public should avoid a ‘witch hunt’ and that focussing on her scenario ‘demeans genuine victims of real offences’ on November 1st Michael Fallon stepped down – apparently due to these events. In his resignation letter he said his previous conduct had ‘fallen below the standards required’. Since his resignation allegations have surfaced that he may have made lewd comments to the leader of the house of commons, Andrea Leadsom and that she may have forced his resignation. If losing a cabinet minister to a scandal wasn’t bad enough the government is only further discredited by stories of sexual misconduct within the cabinet itself.
Until this point the public outrage had been primarily centred on those involved in the sex scandal, but the process of appointing a replacement Defence Secretary turned attention to the government. On the 2nd November 41-year-old Gavin Williamson, the former chief whip, was elevated to the post – a move which drew much criticism from within Westminster. Williamson was elected as an MP in 2010 and was quickly elevated to the role of the PM’s Parliamentary Private Secretary before leading Theresa May’s leadership bid and subsequently being promoted to chief whip. He supported remain in the EU referendum. Within Westminster he is seen as an effective whip, he negotiated the DUP deal and conceded few parliamentary defeats despite the government’s small working majority. However, because of Williamson’s close advisory position to May, many in the conservative party saw this as an unwise self-promotion at a time when the party direly required effective whipping. Other critics say May was even setting up the young, remain-supporting Williamson to succeed her at a time when many other factions in the party thought it was their turn to take the reins.
The very next day the pressure on the government continued, with a report from the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent that International Development secretary Priti Patel had held meetings in Israel without telling the foreign office. According to the report, Mrs Patel – often described as an outspoken pro-Brexit Thatcherite – held meetings with the Israeli prime minister and deputy prime minister, amongst others, suggesting that the Department for International Development would allocate funds to the controversial field hospitals in the annexed Golan Heights. In an interview on November 4th Patel responded that as far as she knew the foreign office had known all along about these meetings. This was flatly denied by the foreign office and on the 6th Patel issued an apology for operating without the government’s consent. Despite this, on November 8th Mrs May recalled the cabinet minister from her holiday in Kenya and in the evening she resigned citing a ‘breach of ministerial conduct’. The seemingly forced resignation sparked outrage within the conservative party’s right-wing who felt Mrs Patel had been unfairly targeted because of her views and that remainer May was forcing her out. In response to this pressure Mrs May appointed another pro-Brexit MP to replace her – the former Minister of State for Disabled People Penny Mordaunt.
It is clear to see that these resignations have brought to the surface the tension between the Brexiteer and remainer factions in the conservative party. The appointment of a remainer MP and subsequent forced resignation of a Brexiteer MP by a remainer PM have the party’s right wing up in arms. This at a time of budgets, Brexit negotiations and diplomatic gaffes by the most senior Brexiteer in the government may spell a serious problem for the May government.
By George Weir