Scandals, gaffes and the end of a government

Bottom of the PM class: Neville Chamberlain, Theresa May and John Major.

Is this the worst government in modern British history? As weakness heaps upon scandal upon division, many believe Theresa May might have only weeks left as prime minister.

The Westminster sexual harassment scandal has claimed one of Theresa May’s ministers, implicated her deputy, and could potentially involve dozens of Conservative MPs.

But at the moment, that is about third on the prime minister’s list of priorities.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is once again in the dock. Last week, Johnson told a committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in Iran along with her young daughter in April 2016, had been teaching journalism during her visit, which she denies.

Her husband said Iranian officials were using Johnson's statement to justify extending his wife's sentence. Johnson will now travel to Iran to attempt to sort the situation out. To call this a “gaffe” would be a grave understatement.

It has also emerged that Priti Patel, the international development secretary, while on holiday, met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. She did not disclose the meeting to Theresa May, breaking ministerial protocol.

Most pundits believe that, were the government not so weak already, she would be sacked instantly. Instead she has merely been "reminded of her obligations".

According to Sam Coates of The Times, most Tories worry that: “Theresa isn’t governing and there’s a vacuum in No10.” A minister has said the government has “no appetite for boldness“ anymore and May’s “lack of political energy” will kill her administration.

In The Guardian, Ian Birrell says May is “a shallow leader surrounded by too many second-raters”.

New polls show that the public has lost faith in May’s handling of Brexit, which now seems like her government’s sole raison d’être.

The budget in two weeks’ time is being seen as May’s last chance to “seize back the political agenda”, writes Rachel Sylvester. But many MPs already believe this government is on its deathbed.

May’s premiership has been compared to the final months of John Major’s government in the 1990s, and to the ousting of Neville Chamberlain at the start of the second world war. Are things that bad?

Life support

The Spectator‘s Ed West writes: “This is not is the worst government in my lifetime, but it’s certainly in the bottom one”. It is paralysed at a time of great tension, when boldness is required. May’s woes reveal a deep existential crisis for the Conservative Party, which appears bereft of ideas and any ability to inspire voters.

But others respond that things are not as bad as they seem for May. For one thing, the Tories are still only two points behind Labour in the latest polls, while Major was often 20 points behind Tony Blair before the 1997 election. And comparisons to Chamberlain’s final days, when Britain was in genuine danger of invasion, are absurd.

You Decide

  1. Is Theresa May the weakest prime minister in modern British history?
  2. Will Theresa May be prime minister this time next year?


  1. Write a 100-word job advertisement for prime minister of the UK. What skills are required?
  2. Design a newspaper front page which sums up the problems facing the government.

Some People Say...

“Being prime minister is a lonely job... you cannot lead from the crowd.”

Margaret Thatcher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The last week or so has been disastrous for Theresa May, with the sexual harassment scandal and the controversies surrounding Boris Johnson and Priti Patel dominating the headlines. But the same could be said for many weeks since the general election, when the Conservatives squandered their majority in the House of Commons. We know that Labour are narrow favourites to win the next election, whenever that is.
What do we not know?
When Theresa May’s time will finally be up. Most Tory MPs are privately adamant that she should never contest a general election again, but the party is desperately split on who her successor should be. Many Remainers believe Amber Rudd, the home secretary, should take over, while Brexiteers favour Boris Johnson, David Davis or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Word Watch

One of Theresa May’s ministers
Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, stepped down after admitting his behaviour towards women had “fallen short”. He was replaced by Gavin Williamson — an appointment that met with widespread criticism given Williamson has never held ministerial office before.
Dozens of Conservative MPs
A spreadsheet, said to be “compiled by Tory aides” and published (with names “redacted”) by the Guido Fawkes blog, detailed complaints against 36 individual Tory MPs. Not all have yet been named to the public, while some have denied the claims.
Israeli prime minister
Downing Street has confirmed that Patel discussed sending aid money to the Israeli army in her 12 undisclosed meetings in the country.
20 points behind Tony Blair
In the end, Major ended up a mere 12.5 points behind Blair, but the Conservatives lost power for the first time in 18 years as Labour won a landslide victory.

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