Analysis: How many more Conservative ministers will resign?

It's not been a great week for Theresa May.

Prime minister Theresa May has again been forced to defend her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson

The prime minister, weakened by a disastrous general election campaign and slow moving Brexit negotiations, must now prevent her cabinet from disintegrating around her.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon, once viewed as Mrs May’s most reliable senior minister, quit on November 1. His replacement, Gavin Williamson, is not well-liked among some Tory MPs and questions have been raised about his suitability for the role.

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And now two further cabinet members are winning headlines for all the wrong reasons. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson and international development secretary Priti Patel are in the sights of opposition MPs following two separate lapses of judgement.

Priti Patel was forced to apologise over a series of meetings in Israel. Picture: John Devlin

“So many members of the cabinet ought to resign that none of them can,” remarked political columnist Hugo Rifkand in a tweet. “It’s like the Three Stooges trying to get through a door.”

During the peak years of New Labour various ministers - from Peter Mandelson to Stephen Byers - fell on their swords. Resignations were sometimes required to prevent political scandals from spreading.

But Mrs May does not have a majority in the Commons to absorb angry MPs. While Tony Blair had one well-known rival for the party leadership candidate in his cabinet, she has several.

A Johnson blunder

Priti Patel was forced to apologise over a series of meetings in Israel. Picture: John Devlin

Many believe that Mrs May is too weak to sack Boris Johnson. The foreign secretary’s loyalty has regularly been questioned, most recently in response to a Telegraph column which was widely viewed as a leadership pitch.

His competence to effectively lead the UK’s entire diplomatic operation is also under increasing scrutiny.

Mr Johnson was forced to admit he ‘could have been clearer’ in remarks about a British woman currently imprisoned in Iran. The clarification was prompted by him mistakenly telling MPs last week that Nazanin Zaghari​-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism” when she was detained by Iranian authorities 18 months ago. Her family have said she was actually on holiday.

The mother-of-one was arrested in 2016 and accused of trying destablise the Tehran government, although the charges have not been made public.

The reaction in Iran to Mr Johnson’s remark saw her being summoned back to court at the weekend. Her sentence could be extended by up to five years.

Tory MPs are angry. One told Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick: “Boris is an f****** disgrace and if he had an ounce of integrity - which he doesn’t - he’d have walked immediately.”

But international trade secretary Liam Fox told the BBC that “we all make slips of the tongue”. He later told Sky News that it wasn’t “a serious gaffe”.

No 10 said the prime minister has full confidence in her foreign secretary.

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An Israeli holiday

Ms Patel’s series of undisclosed meetings with senior Israeli politicians is a further headache for Mrs May.

British diplomats in Israel were not informed when the international development secretary made visits to several organisations where official departmental business was reportedly discussed.

She was forced to apologise on Monday and reprimanded by No 10 for giving the impression in a newspaper interview that Boris Johnson and the UK Foreign Office knew about the meetings in advance.

Mrs May was reportedly only informed of the meetings on Friday - the day after she received the Israeli prime minister for a meeting in Downing St.

“It is hard to believe that anyone, least of all Priti Patel herself, would think that combining a holiday with – it now turns out – 12, yes, 12 professional meetings was a particularly good idea,” noted Guardian columnist Mary Dejevsky.

Going forward

These are not normal times at No 10. What may have been viewed as a sackable offence last year must now be tolerated. The PM cannot afford to lose two cabinet ministers in as many weeks. Three would be unthinkable.

But the opposition senses blood. Labour MP Pat McFadden remarked today the government had “the stench of death about it”.

SNP MP Stephen Gethins claimed “the incompetence of this UK government is simply astonishing”.

Mrs May’s advisors will be hoping both scandals are quickly forgotten about. Others will wonder how many more bad weeks her premiership can survive.