Dominic Hauschild assesses the resignation of Damian Green and the Prime Minister’s options in the New Year.
Theresa May has asked her once loyal ally Damian Green to resign following the Cabinet Office’s findings that he acted dishonestly about pornography on his computer. This means that she has now either sacked or forced the resignation of three high-profile cabinet members in six short weeks. For any other Prime Minister this would mark the beginning of the end, but May is looking as secure as ever.
Though the circumstances of his departure are mired in controversy (was it proper for the Metropolitan Police to release confidential information from an unrelated and closed case? Should he have been forced to resign at all?) Green’s resignation should be seen as a chance for May to revitalise and reform her Cabinet.
It will be important to watch the reactions of prominent Conservatives in the coming days to see who thinks themselves in the running to replace Green as the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy. Veteran Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (long rumoured to be due a promotion) and Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke have both been full-throated in their self-promotion since Green’s resignation last night.
Some are saying that this is a prime opportunity for May to axe some of the other controversial members of her top team. Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and now Damian Green were by no means the only members of the Cabinet who have drawn serious criticism since she took office in 2016. Boris Johnson’s handling of the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case and David Davis’ vanishing Brexit assessments have both drawn the ire of the public and commentators alike, but her reticence in removing them has wrongly been interpreted as a sign of weakness.
Yes, it is true that May’s position following June’s snap election is far more precarious than she would have liked, however few of her colleagues are particularly envious of the job of negotiating Brexit and are content to let her get on with the job and, if necessary, take the fall for it too. This means that May is still as stable as ever, and this situation should be seen as an opportunity for the Prime Minister to perform a decisive cabinet reshuffle.
However, stable does not necessarily mean strong. Conservative MPs seem to be tolerant, and in some cases supportive, of firm action by the Prime Minister against Cabinet members who may be past their best. But that tolerance won’t extend indefinitely. The fact that May hasn’t tried to perform a ruthless Cabinet reshuffle yet is evidence of her diminished political capital among the Tory backbenches. Indeed, for every prominent politician that loses their front bench role a powerful backbench enemy is made. Too many of them, and we will see how much patience her MPs have.
But for now, the Prime Minister can enjoy her Christmas lunch, safe in the knowledge that she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that the time has never been better to perform her biggest shakeup since she was elected last year.