Euan McColm: Feeble May must kick ‘unsackable’ Johnson out of the tent

May sits next to Johnson at a cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
May sits next to Johnson at a cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
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I’ve been having these moments of clarity, recently.

Every so often – perhaps once a day or more – it will occur to me that the government of the United Kingdom is led by a Prime Minister who believes the mission she is sworn to complete will seriously damage the country. More than a year after this extraordinary state of affairs became reality, it still retains the power to blow my tiny mind.

As if it were not bizarre enough that Theresa May is committed to delivering what she considers to be the colossal mistake of Brexit, she is willing to fight for the right to do it.

To add piquancy to the Prime Minister’s miserable task, she is held in contempt by some of her most senior colleagues. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for example, may recently have reasserted his loyal support for May, but he did so after a prolonged period of public defiance on the subject of Brexit, the like of which would – under normal circumstances – have guaranteed his dismissal from cabinet.

Things were so different in the aftermath of the EU referendum last summer when May seemed the only answer to the question “who will replace that bloody idiot David Cameron?”. Back then, May appeared to be precisely the sort of steady-as-she-goes plodder required to put into motion the UK’s departure from the EU. What’s more, she had the additional advantage of not being Andrea Leadsom, the blank-eyed Brexiteer who manages to look out of her depth in even the shallowest waters.

But the summer of 2016 is a foreign country: they thought of Theresa May differently there. Now, the Prime Minister invites contempt rather than offering even the slightest reassurance that Brexit might be a straightforward, even painless, process.

May was supposed to have been strengthened by the general election she called in June but a shockingly poor campaign which saw the Tories lose their overall majority did nothing but further weaken her in the eyes of her colleagues (and, we should accept, in the eyes of the European leaders with whom she will have to reach agreement over the manner of the UK’s departure from the EU).

Now we have a PM who cannot inspire the loyalty of those who serve her and whose handling of matters Brexity, thus far, suggests she doesn’t have the faintest idea what she’s doing.

It’s an intolerable state of affairs.

If ever there was a moment for May to assert herself over her disloyal underlings, it is now. (Actually, it was several weeks ago but better late than never and all that). We are told that the only reason the Prime Minister doesn’t sack Johnson – or others whose loyalty isn’t all it might be – is that she is too politically weak to do so. If she ditches the Foreign Secretary, goes the analysis, he and his acolytes will turn on her; within weeks, we’ll have Prime Minister Johnson bluffing and blustering his way through negotiations with the EU.

May’s inability to shape her ministerial team without fear of mutiny is another intolerable business.

Speculation about a reshuffle has ebbed and flowed and, all the while, the perception that the Foreign Secretary is more powerful than the Prime Minister has grown stronger.

Clearly, when May brought Johnson into her cabinet last year, she was of the view that she’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside, pissing in.

What the Prime Minister has ended up with is a political enemy lurching about inside her tent, relieving himself wherever he damned well pleases, marking his territory. While May continues to indulge the presence of Johnson in the tent of government, she will only become weaker.

Let’s consider this “fact” that Johnson is unsackable. The former Mayor of London may inspire the loyalty of many colleagues but many others loathe him and would do whatever they felt necessary to stop him in his tracks. One can imagine how a Stop Johnson campaign might work.

The Foreign Secretary’s past is littered with gaffes and scandals that would have ended the careers of less confident politicians. But Johnson’s ability to persuade some colleagues that he should be considered a colourful character rather than rejected as a liability doesn’t erase from the record a litany of outrages, from his participation early in his career in a discussion with a friend about a revenge assault to his recent assertion that the Libyan city of Sirte could become a luxury resort just as soon as the corpses had been cleared away.

There’s an understandable and seemingly insatiable public appetite, right now, for the atonement for sins past; perhaps Johnson’s supporters might consider whether their man might really be as infallible as they appear to believe.

The Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, already emboldened (despite general election defeat) by the weakening of May, would surely love a Johnson bid for the premiership. Who better to fit their popular narrative of “for the many not the few” than a privileged old Etonian with a chequered past?

On Friday, yet another Tory politician explained to me that the Prime Minister is too weak to solve a problem like Johnson. If this is truly so, then May is not fit for the office she holds.

The EU referendum was supposed to bring to an end decades of tension over Europe within the Conservative Party. Instead, it has divided the country and hamstrung the government.

If May is to regain any of the authority she once held (and this is, I accept, a big if) then she has no choice but to remove Johnson from her cabinet, not only as punishment for his disloyalty but to show others what they might expect if they should consider following the Foreign Secretary’s example and publicly contradicting the PM.

Perhaps Johnson’s cronies are right; maybe he would come roaring back at the Prime Minister and end her tenure at 10 Downing Street. This is a bluff that must be called.

Theresa May’s indulgence of Boris Johnson means he’s already the most powerful figure in the UK government. If she wishes to correct that imbalance, she has no choice but to sack him.