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13 November 2017

The Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case further highlights the Tories’ Brexit problem

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are the only two ministers who are genuinely unsackable.

By Stephen Bush

With friends like these, who needs the Revolutionary Guard? Michael Gove appeared on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday to defend his beleaguered colleague Boris Johnson’s handling of the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – but instead may have deepened her plight by responding “I don’t know” when asked what she was doing in Iran. (She was on holiday.) “Gove creates new doubts over mother jailed in Iran” is the Times’ splash.

It adds to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s difficulties because Tehran’s modus operandi is to use imprisoned foreign nationals as negotiating chips. Increasing the ambiguity over what she was doing in Iran in the first place both allows the Iranian government to increase the charge sheet against her and also makes it more politically important for the British government to get her home. It means that the political price the UK will have to pay will be higher and therefore increases the chances that she will end up spending years in an Iranian prison.

The political pressure on Johnson has been eased slightly as Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has said that he doesn’t want the Foreign Secretary sacked but simply wants him to get his wife home. (Johnson finally spoke with Ratcliffe last night.)

The plain truth is that while Theresa May is more politically powerful than she appears, Johnson and Gove are the only two ministers who are genuinely unsackable, because of their totemic status as guarantors of Brexit. The risk to the PM is that she ends up looking even weaker and even more rudderless than she does at present as a result of it all.

The Gove gaffe is more understandable (“I don’t know” is an understandable response to “What was she doing in Iran?”) and he tried, albeit ham-fistedly, to walk back the answer he gave. Whereas Johnson’s was simply the most public example of a Foreign Office gripe: that he is rarely on top of his brief and frequently says the wrong thing at the wrong time. 

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The most important story of course is the fate of Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself. But the striking sub-plot is this: why on earth was Gove defending Johnson in the first place, who a little over a year ago he feared was unsuitable for high office? And the answer of course is that for most of the Conservative Party, the Remain/Leave question has overruled considerations like “Is the Foreign Secretary good at his job?” “Does the Chancellor have any political instincts?” and “What’s best for the economy?”

And that, as much as anything else, is why Westminster is increasingly of the opinion that the next election is Labour’s to lose.