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We need unity not backbiting ministers

PUBLISHED: 14:16 28 June 2018

Justice Secretary Liz Truss arrives at Downing Street in London.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss arrives at Downing Street in London.

PA Archive/PA Images

As Brexit negotiations near crunch time Britain needs unity.

Yet what we have got is a divided, backbiting, viper’s nest of a cabinet.

And with each passing week it gets worse.

No peacetime prime minister has been under as much pressure as Theresa May is right now. What she really needs is the collective support of the ministers she has chosen for her cabinet. Instead they are creating even more chaos.

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson revels in his role as a Machiavellian-type villain. He keeps a tarantula – named Cronus after the Greek god who castrated his own father to grab power – on his desk and as chief whip terrified backbenchers in order to get the government’s way.

After the announcement of extra cash for the NHS Mr Williamson – and home secretary Sajid Javid – has been beating his chest in a bid to get more money for the forces. Few people would argue that Britain’s armed forces could do with more money but the way he has gone about making his demands is questionable. And the true reasons behind those requests might also be rather more murky than they appear.

Of course every minister wants more money for their department: it makes their job easier and the chance of them being successful and liked in the role greater.

But Mr Williamson is eyeing a far bigger prize than defence secretary – he wants to be prime minister. He knows that for a large portion of Conservative backbenchers defence is big priority – and he will need their support somewhere down the line.

If he can get more money for the troops he will become a big favourite.

He has supposedly warned the prime minister that without a pledge of more cash Tory MPs would be prepared to vote against the next Budget. This would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the government.

Once again personal ambition is wobbling this already hamstrung government.

If that wasn’t enough East Anglia’s own Liz Truss, the chief secretary of the Treasury, made an extraordinary speech at the London School of Economics attacking environment secretary Michael Gove as well as Mr Williamson and Mr Javid.

The brunt of her attack was over red tape – but to make her point she got rather personal.

She said: “Many of the rules that we have in place are important in guaranteeing public safety.

“But it’s hard to shake the feeling that sometimes they just get in the way of consumers’ choices and lifestyles.

“And government’s role should not be to tell us what our tastes should be.

“Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much, eating too many doughnuts, drinking from disposable cups through plastic straw, or enjoying the warm glow of our wood-burning Goves... I mean stoves.

“I can see their point: there’s enough hot air and smoke at the environment department already.”

Ouch.

She added: “We have to recognise that it’s not macho just to demand more money. It’s much tougher to demand better value and challenge the blob of vested interests within your department.

“Some of my colleagues are not being clear about the tax implications of their proposed higher spending.”

Ms Truss’ speech is a bruising and blatant broadside from the Treasury and will heighten tensions even further.

Mrs May already has Boris Johnson going rogue on Brexit almost every week and now new battle lines have been drawn.

But should we feel sorry for her? It is hard not to, but these difficulties are of her own doing.

She has no power – and that is not only down to that botched general election.

She should have put down a marker early in her premiership – too many people have got away with too much. Too many people believe they are untouchable.

Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher putting up with the nonsense Mrs May is? Nope.

At a book launch this week Charles Powell – Mrs Thatcher’s former foreign affairs chief – was asked what the former prime minister would have done with Mr Johnson – he was clear in his answer “she would have sacked Boris immediately for gross disloyalty and incompetence”.

As it stands no-one is scared of the prime minister. Instead they are jostling for position ahead of a tilt at Number 10 themselves.

This is a crucial time for the UK.

A time when we need unity, clarity and grown up politics – not bad jokes about stoves.

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