LONDON — With just days until Theresa May’s Cabinet must reach a united position on what the UK government’s Brexit policy should be, a number of its key players are swiping at each other in public.
“Collective Cabinet responsibility” — the idea that all Cabinet members should avoid public disagreement in order to put on a united front — has completely gone out the window this week, with numerous ministers using speeches, TV appearances and newspaper front pages to criticise and humiliate their frontbench colleagues.
Of course, this government is no stranger to bickering. The range of opinion within May’s Cabinet on Brexit — perhaps the biggest issue facing a UK government since World War Two — has led to numerous not-so-private bust-ups.
However, over the past week Cabinet infighting has reached new heights. This with just hours until ministers are scheduled to meet to discuss the government’s Brexit policy, with negotiations currently at an impasse.
Here’s a breakdown of the most recent bickering between members of Prime Minister May’s top team.
It’s no secret that Defence Secretary Williamson is an ambitious politician who’ll go to eyebrow-raising lengths to get what he wants. The MP for South Staffordshire has only been in the Cabinet since November but is already tipped as a potential successor to May — at least partly due to his ruthless streak, which is well-known in Westminster.
One tactic that politicians often use to have a dig at their colleagues is to “brief” newspapers, which involves them telling journalists stuff they want to be published. This week, “friends” of Williamson told the press he would bring down May’s government if she didn’t give him an extra £20 billion for the Ministry of Defence. This followed reports that May suggested Britain was no longer a “tier-one” military power which can compete with other nations like the US and China.
Williamson reportedly told defence officials: “I made her [May] — and I can break her.”
As Cabinet infighting goes, it rarely gets more extraordinary threatening to bring down your own prime minister.
One person who didn’t appreciate Williamson’s threats was Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In a very public speech at the London School of Economics on Tuesday, Truss criticised “macho” ministers who are trying to get more money for their departments and also described them as… gremlins. Here is the key extract from her speech:
“Those familiar with the 1984 film Gremlins — will recall how the cute Gizmo, when fed after midnight, turned into a slime-soaked baddie Stripe.
“In much the same way, there’s a tendency for governments and bureaucracy to multiply and exert further control. And before you know it gremlins are everywhere.
“There is a temptation to feed these creatures after midnight.
“But more widely we have to recognise that it’s not macho just to demand more money. It’s much tougher to demand better value and challenge the blob of vested interests within your department.”
The MP for South West Norfolk’s remarks were widely interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack on Williamson, plus other male ministers who have recently demanded additional funding for their departments, namely Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
However, Truss was not done there. She then took a swipe at her Cabinet colleague Michael Gove, who has introduced green policies like the banning of plastic straws since becoming environment secretary. At one point, she joked about burning him, and accused him of spouting “hot air”:
“Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much, eating too many doughnuts, drinking from disposable cups through plastic straw, or enjoying the warm glow of our wood-burning Goves… I mean stoves.
“I can see their point: there’s enough hot air and smoke at the Environment Department already.”
Not exactly happy families.
Now, step forward Business Secretary Clark. The MP for Tunbridge Wells isn’t known for public outbursts of any kind, nevermind against his colleagues, but on Tuesday used a speech at The Times CEO Summit to slap down Cabinet Brexiteers — chiefly Boris Johnson — who have criticised businesses for expressing concerns about Brexit.
Last week, it was reported that Foreign Secretary Johnson said “f*** business” when asked by a Belgian official about companies like Airbus calling for the UK government to adopt a much softer Brexit policy. Johnson was backed up by Health Secretary Hunt, who said it was “completely inappropriate” for businesses to issue Brexit warnings.
Clark appeared to fire back at Johnson and Hunt, saying:
“The business voice puts evidence before ideology and brings the actual experience of trading with Europe and the rest of the world, not a theoretical view of what the world might be like.
“The actual experience of how supply chains work… The actual experience of employing millions of men and women; of helping them earn a good living; not a theoretical exercise in which you take decisions over the lives of people in imagined worlds.”
He then went on to call for a very soft form Brexit, based on continued “Labour mobility” (high levels of EU migration) and a deal which covers “services as well as goods” (near full access to the single market).