It has been one of the most bizarre and brutal months in politics for some time – dominated by Cabinet turmoil and division over Brexit. Donald Trump’s visit to the UK encapsulated this mood, with the US President being greeted by a giant inflatable ‘baby Trump’, as well as the anger of mass protesters in London and beyond.
The Government has felt the full force of ongoing divisions over Brexit during the past month, as it is confronted with the results of failing to agree a coordinated approach to negotiations. In an effort to reach consensus, we witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the PM whisking her Cabinet off to Chequers for a Brexit summit. Challenges and disagreements were aired before a proposal for a much softer Brexit was put on the table by the PM and, eventually, agreed to by even the most recalcitrant Cabinet member.
It was felt the PM had pulled off a coup – ambushing the ardent Brexiteers around the Cabinet with proposals that fell substantially short of the hard Brexit they desired. Yet by the Sunday evening after the summit, with rumours circulating that David Davis was about to jump ship, May’s Chequers masterstroke was looking more like an audacious gamble that hadn’t come off. The resignations of Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and, even more explosively, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, in quick succession rocked the Government, and once again raised questions as to whether May’s position as PM was tenable.
A quick reshuffle ensued – carried out quickly and effectively, with the PM and her team managing to shore up the Government. Having become the longest-serving Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt was rewarded with a move to Foreign Secretary, where we can expect his approach to be somewhat different in style to his predecessor. Dominic Raab takes up the reins at DExEU, replacing David Davis, but has been told by the PM that she – rather than him – will be leading Brexit negotiations moving forward. Matt Hancock, having seemingly relished his time at DCMS and embraced the digital agenda, replaces Hunt at Health. We can expect the potential for digital and tech to transform healthcare in the UK to feature highly on his agenda moving forward. As an aside, Kit Malthouse becomes the eighth Housing Minister since 2010 – leading critics to suggest that Government rhetoric on housing isn’t quite matched by reality.
And where is Labour in all this? Soaring away in the polls? Well, not quite. Whilst the Party has gained a small lead in recent polls, the general consensus persists that it should be doing substantially better – given that it is facing what is essentially a Government in perpetual crisis. Instead, the party finds itself in a serious and deeply unsavoury row over accusations of antisemitism. This is an issue that has been bubbling away within the Party for a number of months, but has come to a head with the decision by the leadership not to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Whether Labour moderates will act decisively over the summer against this decision remains to be seen.
Given the events of the past month, Number 10 will be happy to have reached the long summer recess. As Conservative MPs leave Westminster to spend more time in and around their constituencies over the summer, Number 10 will be wary of local grassroots associations – who have received the Chequers Brexit deal with lukewarm support at most – airing their views and pressing their case to their local MP.
It may not be a quiet summer.