To lose one cabinet minister could be regarded as unfortunate; to lose four in six months is more than carelessness.
The resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary, for misleading MPs over targets for the removal of illegal immigrants, enhances the stench of decay around Theresa May’s government. The Prime Minister, the author of the “hostile environment” policy, and of the obsession with reducing net migration, now has no human shield between her and the opprobrium over the Windrush scandal. May is paying the price for her false assumption that no immigration policy can be too “tough”.
Until recently, it was commonly agreed that the Prime Minister was enjoying her best spell since her electoral humiliation. She had assembled a formidable 25-country alliance against Russia in response to the Salisbury poisoning; once critical backbenchers hailed her leadership. Labour, meanwhile, was fractured by divisions over anti-Semitism, Russia and Syria.
But the facade of stability that May erected could not endure. The Conservative Party’s decades-long civil war over Europe has been reignited by the issue of a customs union (with “friends” of Brexit Secretary David Davis furiously briefing against the Prime Minister’s EU adviser Olly Robbins). The departure of Rudd, an ardent Remainer, may make the long-delayed MPs’ vote on the Trade Bill yet harder to win.
Economic growth, meanwhile, is estimated to have slowed to just 0.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year (the Chancellor blames the snow; the Office for National Statistics does not). May, forever enfeebled by the loss of her majority, still has no domestic agenda worthy of the name. “Just managing” – the term the Prime Minister used for neglected low- and middle-earners – has become her government’s unofficial motto. As the New Statesman’s Crumbling Britain series is documenting, after years of unending cuts, Britain’s public realm is in unmistakable decay (homelessness, to take but one example, has risen by 169 per cent since 2010).
The Treasury is run by Philip Hammond, an unimaginative austerian who May longed to sack. The Foreign Office is held by Boris Johnson, the worst occupant of the post since the Second World War. The Ministry of Defence is run by Gavin Williamson, a narcissistic amateur, who ordered Russia to “go away and shut up”.
Since December, four cabinet ministers have resigned in ignominy: Michael Fallon for groping female journalists, Priti Patel for running a freelance foreign policy, Damian Green for lying over pornography on his office computer, and Rudd for displaying either remarkable incompetence or remarkable mendacity.
When things appear as if they cannot go on in politics, they frequently do (recall the moribund Major and Brown administrations). But the government, or at least what is left of it, ever more resembles a mortally wounded creature that deserves to be put out of its misery.