To Regain Authority, Theresa May Must Risk Office and Sack Boris Johnson

In November 1990, having failed to win the Tory leadership, a wounded Margaret Thatcher saw her Cabinet one by one to secure their support. Famously, she later described their candor as “Treachery. With a smile on its face”.

Three ministers deviated from the script. Alan Clark who said she should fight a second ballot against Michael Heseltine and go down in a blaze of glory; Ken Clarke allegedly threatened to resign should she fight on; and Tom King who offered a compromise whereby Thatcher preannounced her resignation but stayed in office until the potential war in the Gulf had been resolved.

Thatcher proclaimed that such a compromise would leave her without a shred of authority and she would not remain in office for a day without authority.

Twenty-seven years later, Britain’s second female prime minister was wounded in a similar fashion. The election she failed to win was a popular one not a party one, her choice was - stay or go. We have no way of telling how pure or honourable Theresa May’s motivations were for chosing the former, but chose she did.

The country is now suffering her choice. There is a danger that predictions of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal becomes self-fulfilling prophecies.

Theresa May is not the first prime minister to find herself in office without power. However, she is a weak prime minister when the country is conducting important negotiations. Therefore she has a duty to asserty her dominance rather than accept dimunition.

Authority may be like virginity: once lost it is never regained. Chastity is within the realms of anyone should they choose it.   

The Foreign Secretary is a busted flush

Theresa May has no choice. She has to sack Boris Johnson. Give him a sinecure. Put him in charge of the Vehicle Licensing Authority in Swansea. Send him to Mongolia, as Heseltine suggested. But Johnson remaining as foreign secretary and Theresa May having any semblence of credibility are now mutually exclusive.  

The Foreign Secretary is a busted flush. He has gone from being the most popular politician in the country, to one distrusted and disliked for his divisive role in the referendum. First, he rebelled in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, then he back off during the conference. He published his red lines over a transition period, then praised May when she stomped over those redlines when outlining Britain’s plans for a Brexit transition. Each tantrum weakens May as much as it weakens him.

His parochial jingoism has annoyed younger Tories who saw the damage May did when talking about “citizens of nowhere”.  European foreign ministers have again and again found offence from a minister who should be making allies.

Incompetence is pretty good cause.  

Although few would mourn his passing, Johnson still has allies in the right-wing media. She would be risking their support by humiliating her foreign secretary. This is why sacking Johnson can only be part of her strategy.

In 1989, Thatcher’s relationship with her foreign secretary had grown to such a point that they could no longer work together effectively. Perhaps Geoffrey Howe believed himself to be “unsackable”. It turned out he was not. In his place, the prime minister appointed John Major, then an unknown who had previously served as her Chancellor’s dutiful deputy.

That sacking Boris Johnson has risks should increase the appeal. It would show courage

Having ignored Thatcher once, May should not do so again. By sacking Johnson she will cause a storm. In ripping up the political rulebook and plucking fresh Tory talent from somewhere unexpected, May might limit any threat. In a reshuffle that clears some of the deadwood - Hunt, McLoughlin, Fallon - in favour of an energetic generation untainted by past Tory-euro squabbles and making the new foreign secretary the centrepiece of a potential Tory revival (who’s giggling at the back there?), May might increase her grip on her party. The story will be as much the new team coming in as Johnson’s exit.

Everyone knows she will not fight another election. She cannot pre-announce her departure as that will drain what is left of her authority. But by appointing youth, she will effectively be saying that she will not go on and on. She will be buying authority at the expense of longevity.

The question May should be asking herself is a very Thatcherite one: is there an alternative?

The Prime Minister might see it is as her duty to provide calm leadership but she is merely providing no leadership - and in doing so harming her country. Her natural caution is worsening a bad situation. That sacking Boris Johnson has risks should increase the appeal. It would show courage. Should his removal from office drive her from Downing Street, at least she will have lost power by refusing to accept her impotence. By sacking Johnson, she is merely risking her own position. By limping on, she is putting the country at risk.

Go out in a blaze of glory, advised Clark.

As far as Theresa May is concerned, it is hardly the legacy for which she hoped when she became prime minister. It will not put her up there with William Pitt or Benjamin Disraeli. But refusing to be in office without power is - at least -  something.

(And if she could do it by next Tuesday, that would be great. I have a bet on.)

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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