Cannabis, not Brexit, best illustrates Theresa May’s near-total loss of authority

The row over medicinal use of the drug highlights May’s inability to take decisions – and how leadership contenders are filling the power vacuum it leaves.

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A list of political challenges facing Theresa May wouldn't ordinarily feature the word cannabis. But this week the row over the medicinal use of the drug is creating headlines across the UK and exposing fault-lines within the cabinet, and the Prime Minister only has herself to blame.

Two cases involving young boys with epilepsy who are medicated with cannabis oil – Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, 6 – have sent the question of legalising and regulating the drug for medicinal purposes to the to the top of the news agenda. May’s flat-footed response to the row has kept it there for much longer than necessary: her spokesman has now had to reveal that she has never smoked the drug.

The two boys are now able to access the drug after an intervention from Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, who announced a review of the medicinal cannabis today. He told MPs that the government would be willing to change the law “if the review identified that there are significant medical benefits” and admitted “that there is a pressing need to allow those who might benefit from cannabis-based products to access them”. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, struck a similar note yesterday.

The two ministers – both ambitious – are stepping into the vacuum where the Prime Minister should be. May offered a limp defence of the status quo yesterday, and said there was a “very good reason” for keeping the rules that led to Billy Caldwell being hospitalised and days of negative publicity. For Tory MPs, this is yet more evidence of what they see as May’s greatest weakness: an inability to think dynamically or nip developing problems in the bud. One sums it up particularly bluntly: “She can't take decisions.”

The immediate result of that is bad publicity for May. This episode is another instance of her misjudging the public mood on an emotive issue. It starkly illustrates her political weakness too. In doing nothing, the prime minister boosts the stock of those who could replace her. She loses, while Javid wins. His announcement of a review after May had defended the status highlighted her lack of control over the cabinet, but also has the potential to destroy a key tenet of her Home Office philosophy: a draconian approach to drug legislation.

On issues such as this and immigration, Javid’s colleagues have been struck by his willingness to be his own man at a department which still largely bears image of his boss. That he can do so throws the collapse in the Prime Minister’s authority into harsh relief. She is stuck in a destructive negative feedback loop: every episode like this – a freelance cabinet intervention here, a climb down on a key May pledge there – emboldens ministers to do the same. Slowly, the cabinet is chipping away at her claim to lead from within.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.