Those of us who watch football are familiar with the phenomenon in which the referee, having spotted a misdemeanour, allows play to continue, then at a time of their choosing, seeks out the miscreant and dispenses justice.
Theresa May, whether by accident or design, has seen a bit of football. Could it be that, as suggested by today’s reports, she will choose this as the moment to stop the clock and deliver belated punishment?
The reports say that one reshuffle target is Boris Johnson, the comedy circuit turn who doubles as foreign secretary. Who could argue against that? Well him and the-nothing-else-matters-but-Brexit Brexiteers perhaps. But who else? If she stopped play to deal with his wilful scuppering last September of her supposedly definitive Brexit position with publication of his own red lines, wouldn’t that be just deserts? If she, purely on the grounds of competence, sacked him for his appalling gaffe that further endangered Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by feeding the Iranian delusion that she was a spy, wouldn’t that just be good stewardship?
It is said she might move him to a more focused Brexit delivery role. No role at all would be better, but moving him from the Foreign Office would at least allow her to reconstruct the foreign secretary’s role as one that requires wisdom and gravitas.
But don’t hold your breath. Even when she stops play, she knows she isn’t in control of events. She may, we are told, sack Andrea Leadsom as leader of the House of Commons. She may sack Chris Grayling from transport, as has been suggested by Lord Adonis and Tom Watson. As he flounders with the nation’s infrastructure, we might see that as a mercy killing.
But surely a prime minister in charge of events would be looking to dispense with Brexit secretary David Davis. Who can forget how just last month he too undermined the Brexit talks, by suggesting our agreement with the EU wasn’t binding? Has anyone been more out of his depth since Jonah?
A prime minister worthy of the title would hardly contemplate replacing her disgraced former first lieutenant Damian Green with Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary.
The bad news from his fiefdom racks up daily: today it is hospitals running at 99 per cent capacity, corridors overflowing with patients, and desperate managers resorting to social media to fill gaps in staffing. This is on his watch. How is that success?
The sad truth is that May long ago lost any ability to marshal her party. She cannot impose the normal evaluations, disciplines and sanctions on those beneath her because they know she is diminished and see that she isn’t up to the job.
And so, from time to time, while she remains in post, we will hear tales of the prime minister asserting her authority, demanding order, issuing threats. But the players won’t take much notice because they know she is effectively a referee without a whistle.
The question for those — particularly of the next generation — who see the party heading for a thrashing from Corbyn FC, is how long they are prepared to endure the charade without making an intervention.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Hugh Muir is associate editor of Guardian Opinion.