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18 March 2019

If Theresa May has such a strong sense of duty, then why is Chris Grayling in the cabinet?

The Prime Minister, we’ve been told again and again, is motivated by duty. But it’s difficult to square this idea with her actions.

By Jonn Elledge

Why is Chris Grayling – a man whose incompetence is now so legendary that it warranted a write-up in the New York Times, complete with a correction acknowledging that the Grey Lady had understated the losses he’d caused the taxpayer by a factor of a thousand – still in the cabinet?

It’s a question that rail passengers, legal professionals and other passers-by baffled by his continuing and expensive presence frequently ask. Yet it’s almost always shrugged off as tedious by those inside the Westminster bubble, because they all know the answer.

Chris Grayling has never been sacked because he remains staunchly loyal to Theresa May, at a point in history when almost nobody else is. And so, it doesn’t matter that he can’t run the trains, that he hands out ferry contracts to companies with no ferries, that his gaffes may have cost this country £2.7bn. (No wonder the NYT was confused.) Grayling is safe as long as May is safe. Lucky for the taxpayer, really, that’s not likely to be for very much longer.

It might seem outlandish to suggest Grayling is not the least able member of the current cabinet, yet it’s entirely plausible that he isn’t. The most notable moments of Karen Bradley’s reign as Northern Ireland Secretary were when she admitted she’d only recently realised that Northern Ireland’s voters tend to vote on sectarian basis, a fact familiar to most A-level politics students; and when she suggested that killings carried out by British security forces during the Troubles could not count as crimes, precisely because they’d been carried out by British security forces.

Even at a time when the status of Northern Ireland wasn’t one of the central issues in British politics, such comments would have highlighted quite how unqualified Bradley was for the job that she held. Yet hold it she does, on the grounds that Theresa May is not willing to dispense with the services of one of the few May-ites who walk the earth.

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That the interests of the people of Northern Ireland don’t seem to come into it shouldn’t be a surprise: May’s cavalier attitude to such things has been obvious since at least June 2017, when she asked a party from one-side of the sectarian divide to prop up her government and thus appeared to take sides. But what is surprising is the narrative that persists around May in the face of all this rampant self-interest.

The Prime Minister, we’ve been told again and again, is motivated by duty. Why did she not quit when her Brexit deal went down to the largest defeat in modern political history, or after any of the other endless humiliations that have been heaped on her? Why is she still plugging away at a point when it’s painfully clear that almost nobody wants her to? Because, we’re told, she has an unshakeable sense of duty.

But it’s difficult to square this idea with much of what she actually does. Would a woman motivated by duty to her country shield expensively incompetent ministers from the axe, simply because they were her mates? Would she engage in brinkmanship that might risk a no-deal Brexit, with all the economic chaos and empty supermarket shelves that entails, to slightly strength her hand in the next parliamentary showdown? Come to that, if it’s duty to her country that’s motivating May, then why has she spent so much of her premiership telling large chunks of that country that they and their views don’t really count?

Actually, there is a way of reconciling May’s supposed sense of duty with her actions: that is, it’s not the British people she feels a duty to, but her party. Perhaps she’s conflated the interests of the Conservative Party with those of the state as a whole, and then persuaded herself that her party needs her. It must be tempting, at the top of politics, to imagine, like Louis XIV, that, “L’etat, c’est moi”. But why the rest of us should indulge this fantasy is beyond me.

If Theresa May was really motivated by lofty concepts like duty, then we wouldn’t be 11 days away from Brexit with no earthly idea of what it entails, and Grayling and Bradley would have been out long ago. The obvious conclusion is that she isn’t: May is as venal and self-serving a leader as this country has had in a long, long time.