It was surely the longest ‘walk of shame’ in British political history. Priti Patel’s 4,200-mile journey from Nairobi to Heathrow, followed by further 28-mile car-ride from Heathrow to Downing Street, was undeniably humiliating.
Part-OJ Simpson televised chopper chase, part online planespotter frenzy, the International Development Secretary’s long, long trek to No.10 was a punishment all of its own.
Even though Patel was allowed the polite fiction of a ‘resignation’ (she was obviously sacked), some Tory MPs felt the treatment of their fellow Brexiteer was just too brutal. Conservative Eurosceptics view her as a ‘martyr’ both to their cause and to British-Israeli relations.
There hasn’t been an actual Downing Street ‘walk of shame’ by a ‘sacked’ Cabinet minister since Tony Blair’s era. Gordon Brown and David Cameron dispensed with the tradition, preferring to deliver bad news on the phone or in the privacy of their Commons office.
When May sacked Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary last year, it took just 15 seconds and she did it in Westminster, sparing the ousted minister further pain.
On Wednesday, the PM took a very different tack. Patel was even forced to wait, almost like a child in detention waiting outside the headmistress’s office, as May met the Queen for her weekly audience at Buckingham Palace.
With her own political survival hanging in the balance, the last thing May needs is the instability of a second Cabinet “resignation” in two weeks.
Yet for the embattled Prime Minister, Priti Patel’s departure was essential. Not just to show she’s still in charge of the Government, but much more importantly to show she’s still in charge of her Government’s foreign policy.
And as ever, Brexit is the number one foreign policy issue that casts its huge shadow over her wider reshuffle calculations.
May is only in post because most of her Leave-supporting MPs can’t agree an obvious alternative leader to steer the party through a complex negotiation with Brussels and deliver a “smooth” exit from the EU in 2019.
But the financial markets, business chiefs, EU negotiators and most of all her own backbenchers are increasingly worried about the PM’s grip on the process and her chances of success. From Brussels’ point of view, they need to know their lead partner will still be in place to deliver on her promises.
May’s recent party conference disaster was prefaced by another Cabinet minister freelancing on Government policy. Yes, Boris Johnson’s noises off fuelled the perception abroad that May wasn’t really in charge and the UK’s position on Brexit was not as settled as assumed.
The irony is that after her Florence speech, she had managed to get the Cabinet to unite behind a common position on a transitional path to Brexit. However, she has taken a particularly hard line since then, suggesting there can be no transition without a trade deal sorted with the EU at the same time.
That tougher stance, pushed by Brexit Secretary David Davis, has made several ‘Remainers’ in the Cabinet very uneasy indeed, fearing Brussels simply won’t allow the UK to have all the benefits of EU membership, while securing new trade deals with other states.
Patel’s departure also throws up the need to maintain the delicate Leaver-Remain balance in May’s top team. As an ardent Brexiteer and member of the anti-EU Referendum Party in the 1990s, the International Development Secretary had a much longer and stronger record as a Eurosceptic than Boris Johnson.
Members of the Tory MPs’ European Research Group, the Brexit hardcore of the party in Parliament, saw Patel as a key player (along with other less high profile colleagues like Chris Grayling) defending their interests at the highest level. The unwritten convention, even before her snap election disaster, has been that May cannot change the number of Remainers or Leavers in Cabinet.
May’s room for manoeuvre is limited. Work and Pensions Minister Penny Mordaunt is the only Brexiteer woman in Government working at the Minister of State level that is normally considered the rung under the ministerial ladder below Cabinet. With a background in defence and overseas trips, Mordaunt could be the perfect choice.
The farce of Patel’s humiliating flight back from Kenya, her plane tracked online by tens of thousands of people, was described by one Tory insider as “a man-made news vacuum”. “The slow news day and the flight is the killer. You know if it’s fun for the Lobby [of political journalists], it’s definitely worse.”
One minister told me that Patel’s exit from Cabinet – dubbed ‘Prexit’ by her critics at Westminster – was a golden opportunity for the PM to really stamp her authority on the Government with a full-scale reshuffle. Johnson too could be fired for defying No.10, Damian Green forced to step aside (pending the inquiry into alleged sex harassment) and new blood promoted. May could get back on track her wider agenda of social change needed to tackle “burning injustices” that led to the Brexit vote.
Staging another limited reshuffle, simply to replace Patel with another minister, carries the risk of the PM looking like she’s reacting to events rather than driving them.
Yet as her promotion of chief whip Gavin Williamson proved last week, the PM is a more timid and cautious political creature than that. Her last big, bold gamble was the snap election, a roll of the dice that trashed her “strong and stable” personal brand as well as snuffing out her Commons majority. Williamson’s appointment as Defence Secretary still rankles with many frontbenchers and backbenchers who saw him as too inexperienced even in his previous job.
Today, as he arrived for a Nato summit, Williamson looked like a student on Fresher’s Week (he’s never even spoken at the Commons despatch box, let alone run a spending department) as he was ‘doorstepped’ about Patel by the media. “The Prime Minister makes her own decision on who is serving in her cabinet, and they are only the Prime Minister’s decisions,” is all he could say.
The real difficulty for May is one of timing. There are exactly two weeks before Chancellor Philip Hammond delivers his Budget and departments in the sensitive process of negotiating their bids can’t afford to lose their Secretaries of State in a major reshuffle. Far from showing authority, it could further undermine a rare chance to relaunch the Government. She also has to wait for due process on the Damian Green inquiry before even thinking of replacing him.
The PM still has some loyal senior ministers around her, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd a possible replacement for either Johnson or Green, should either quit. But there is a fractious mood. “Everyone is looking over their shoulder, or eyeing up promotion,” one minister confides. “We just need some stability.”
Some ministers complain that May’s own Downing Street operation itself lacks experience and grip. The PM’s allies counter that she showed bold leadership in confronting Fallon last week and in reading Patel the riot act on Monday.
The problem is that in not firing Patel sooner, or even in publicly forcing Johnson to correct his Iran blunder, May still appears to be an uncertain leader. Add in Cabinet freelancing over public sector pay and various Budget demands (Jeremy Hunt today said ‘the NHS should be the first port of call’ for any Brexit dividend), and there’s a whiff of anarchy, not stability.
The only certainty at Westminster is that no Tory MP wants a general election that could risk a Jeremy Corbyn premiership. But that doesn’t mean her party is not prepared to dump her as soon as practicable, without the need to consult the voters until 2022.
The fact that Boris Johnson is still in post, despite his gaffe putting the liberty of a British national at risk, underlines the impression that May is still a hostage of her party rather than leader of it.
The jokes today were about Patel coming through customs. Yet as far as her Foreign Secretary is concerned, it seems it is the PM who has nothing to declare but her weakness.
Regardless of the size and scale of this reshuffle, May’s very own final ‘walk of shame’, to tender her resignation at Buckingham Palace, is still the moot topic among her MPs.