Another edifying week on the Mount Olympus of British politics, as the Tory deities continue to operate on a one-in, one-out policy. No one’s eaten their own children yet, although some of the parenting is starting to look fairly idiosyncratic. Still, which of us holidaymakers hasn’t palmed our children off with the iPad for a couple of days while we take some much-needed ‘me’ time in the Knesset? Siri, find me somewhere to buy 10 kilos of Haribo in the Golan Heights.
To behold the pantheon is to know that whatever the opposite of a clash of the titans is, this British government is having it. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Theresa May’s shuffle function is broken. She can only manually cue up one new minister at a time, and only when the minister before has played out completely.
It’s a laborious process that saw Britain compelled to endure a nine-hour fade-out for Priti Patel. As the international development secretary’s plane crawled across the flight-tracker app of 22,000 political ironists on Wednesday, it was reported that Downing Street wanted to give her “the dignity of resigning”. Clearly, this would have been possible only with a Tardis. Without one, it was the most ludicrous use of the word dignity since the universal credit debate.
According to Patel’s friends, now that she has resigned, she is going to turn her energies to Brexit and “go off like a double-barrelled shotgun”. Think of this as the Tory biathlon, where departing ministers slide down a mess of their own creation, then open fire in the national interest. At the current rate of growth, the sport will overtake hockey in popularity by Christmas.
Any winners? I suppose Patel’s departure revalidates Andrea Leadsom, whose enchanted mirror confirms to her that at the Cabinet table, she is once more the dimmest of them all. It was also good news for Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is still acquiring the raw material from which to sew together his Winston Churchill suit, and welcomes attention being diverted anywhere else while he works. Last week saw the foreign secretary casually risk the further incarceration of a British citizen in Iran, as he overturned a year of painstaking insistence by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family and legal team that she had been on holiday in Tehran, visiting her parents, and not training journalists, as the Iranian authorities declared when they sentenced her to five years in prison. Despite reports of acute distress on the part of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family, and threatening broadcasts on Iranian state TV, Johnson would say only that he was sorry if his words had been “taken out of context”.
And yet, if we may return to the record, the foreign secretary’s literal words were: “When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it.” This suggests that the context in which words mean their opposite is the physical context of Johnson’s mouth. I guess we already knew this. Even so, this episode found a concealed basement in the barrel he’s been scraping.
Other winners? If we count getting your tail knotted into May’s rat-king cabinet as winning, it was good news for Penny Mordaunt, who took over from Patel at International Development. Penny’s previous claim to fame was refusing to allow her wit to be defined by her surname, and consequently uttering profanities a lot of times in a Commons speech. She also appeared on a fourth-tier ITV reality show for the stated reason that she wanted to raise £7,000 (Dh33,900) for her local lido, and the unstated one that that is just the sort of thing you say when you want to raise your profile, but not go Full Nadine.
Elsewhere in the land of strong and stable, the de facto deputy prime minister is still under Cabinet investigation for both making inappropriate advances towards a Tory activist and an allegation that porn was found on his office computer, in a case that currently appears to hinge on Damian Green’s assertion that Britain’s former most senior counter-terrorism chief is “discredited”.
Meanwhile, over at the negotiations with the European Union, Brexit Secretary David Davis is still saying “pragmatic” “flexible” and “creative” every couple of sentences. Britain’s chief negotiator is apparently convinced that there is a precise sequence in which these words could be uttered that would not simply make them mean something — anything — that would stop Michel Barnier looking at him like a competition winner. Is there? “Non.”
In one sense, then, no one can really be surprised by the results of a Times-YouGov poll that asked voters who should replace May as leader. Even so, there is something rather mesmeric about it. ‘Don’t Know’ is on 37 per cent. ‘None of Those Named’ is on 27 per cent, with both distantly trailed by Johnson at 10 per cent and Jacob Rees-Mogg on 8 per cent. ‘Don’t Know’, ‘None of Those’, ‘Boris Johnson’ and ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg’ ... What can you say? My country, right or wrong. Many of you won’t have felt this inspired since Own Goal drew level with Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney as England’s top scorer!
Before we go on, though, a clarification. In a recent column I may have given the impression that the supposedly “authentic” Rees-Mogg is a middle-class sub-par thinker who has yet to grow out of pretending to be something else. But on reflection, I am wondering if he is not in fact a cyborg sent back in time by Skynet to make Johnson look like someone who wouldn’t be the worst choice for a prime minister. The Conservative party is now urgently in need of a Kyle Reese-style soldier to destroy him and save humanity. (Expect Johnny Mercer to be linked with the role in due course.) Then again, among Tory voters, Rees-Mogg is heading the ideal leader stakes on 18 per cent, while Boris has drifted to 12 per cent. Encouraging to think that those two could be the answer to any question other than: “Which post-imperial theme park greeter would most resoundingly constitute our formal resignation from international life?”
The suspicion, alas, is that Britain delivered the resignation letter some time ago, but is in that period of magical thinking where it has yet to realise it. After the referendum vote last year, one European minister described the United Kingdom as a cartoon character who had run off the edge of the cliff, but not yet looked down. It’s hard to say how many more weeks we’ll be airborne, but after this one, it seems clear that a Patel-style landing awaits Britain.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist.