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Nuclear option: Can Theresa May drop a bomb on her rogue cabinet?

PUBLISHED: 10:25 15 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:25 15 October 2017

All smiles: But there are growing tensions within Theresa May's Cabinet. Picture: Zoe Norfolk

All smiles: But there are growing tensions within Theresa May's Cabinet. Picture: Zoe Norfolk

Archant

If Theresa May’s speech at Conservative Party conference had gone well it would have already happened but, alas, it could not have gone any worse.

The backbenchers are screaming for something to freshen up the top team, some spark that might rally the troops and get people talking about policy again rather than when Mrs May’s government might collapse.

This is not the first pencilled-in reshuffle of course. If Mrs May had won that landslide victory everyone was expecting back in June there would be a new tenant in Number 11 now and Philip Hammond would be lobbing Brexit grenades at her from the back of the chamber.

Instead he is biting off the pins and sliding them across the cabinet table.

Since that election capitulation there has been a breakdown of collective agreement within the cabinet. In usual circumstances if you can’t agree with your cabinet colleagues you have to go.

Remember Claire Short? She disagreed with Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq and left the cabinet.

These days though it appears you can nod along during cabinet and in the background at prime minister’s questions before firing off an opinion piece for a newspaper declaring an opposing view.

In the past month foreign secretary Boris Johnson has turned to the pages of the newspapers to highlight his red lines on Brexit and this week Mr Hammond wrote that he was not yet spending money to prepare for a ‘no deal’ scenario.

Number 10 want to use ‘no deal’ as a threat during negotiations to scare the European Union into reaching a favourable agreement for the UK.

So, when the reshuffle happens surely Mr Johnson and Mr Hammond can expect their marching orders? In more normal times this scenario would not be radical but now – as the government grapples with Brexit and the cabinet engages in all-out war – it seems highly unlikely.

Even though the pair of rogue cabinet members have left Mrs May fighting a war on two fronts inside her own top team she does not appear to have the power to sack either.

Many Tory MPs are crying out for changes that would usher in a new generation, not tarnished by austerity policies or the referendum.

George Freeman, Mid Norfolk MP, said: “The key is party modernisation: if the prime minister reshuffled some of the new generation of talent in parliament into government, and appointed a modernising party chairman, I think she would secure a lot of support.”

The likelihood is that the new party chairman will be Great Yarmouth’s Brandon Lewis.

But the significant changes many want are unlikely to happen. Even though Number 10 is increasingly annoyed by some ministers going off-message (one aide described the chancellor’s intervention this week as “deeply unhelpful”) Mrs May will probably take the Godfather’s advice to heart: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

Any changes that do come will be in the mid ranks. Tom Tugendhat, currently the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Dominic Raab, who many tip as a future leader, are both likely to feature among any news faces.

But will it be enough to turn around Mrs May’s flagging premiership and stumbling government? Perhaps not – but what else can she do?

There is always the nuclear option – sack Mr Johnson, sack Philip Hammond and send a clear message out to the rest of the cabinet: “Get in line or get out.”

Some think this is the best way for the PM to win back the authority she gave away by calling a general election she did not need to fight. But she knows it would be a huge risk.

There are movements in the background by staunch backers of Brexit to manoeuvre their people in to positions of power. Dropping a bomb on her current cabinet might result in a leadership challenge she cannot win.

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