By Jack Hudson
“No one is unsackable”, Chancellor Phillip Hammond claimed at the Conservative Party Conference two weeks ago in response to questions over Boris Johnson’s position as Foreign Secretary. Indeed, with attacks against Hammond from Brexiteer MPs increasing in ferocity neither his or Johnson’s position feel secure.
However, with the most ‘sackable’ person in the cabinet since the disastrous general election being Theresa May herself, are either of her two most prominent ministers really in danger?
Johnson and Hammond were two very different appointments to May’s new cabinet in July 2016. Hammond, while not a friend of the new PM as their predecessors David Cameron and George Osbourne had been, was considered a safe and steady pair of hands, a reliable ally for the PM.
Johnson on the other hand had led the Brexit campaign that had ripped the Tory party apart and, though he didn’t actually run for the leadership, still felt like the person May had beaten to the top job. However, with the party’s situation transformed in the last fifteen months, both men now seem to be causing the PM equal strife.
Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary was largely seen as a joke due to his eccentric personality and seeming lack of diplomacy and tact. After over a year in the job, these concerns do not seem to have been disproven. This week the Foreign Secretary is causing controversy over his refusal to apologise for remarks made about the city of Sirte in Libya which he said could become the new Dubai once “the dead bodies are cleared away”. Insensitive and offensive comments such as this have become a common occurrence.
Number 10 had issued a loose condemnation of the Libya comments saying it was not “an appropriate choice of words”, however Theresa May has usually been reluctant to criticise or rebuke her Foreign Secretary for his many gaffes, likely thinking it is safer to keep him onside.
However, the challenge from Johnson has not just come from his brutish personality, he has also made more calculated attempts to undermine the Prime Minister. His article for the Telegraph on Brexit was clearly rebellious. This is what put Johnson in direct opposition to the Chancellor.
The Chancellor has been critiqued by Brexit MPs for trying to stall and undermine the negotiations, and for negativity about the Leave vote. With a new budget fast approaching it seems unlikely that Hammond will give way to demands for big spending to prepare for a possible ‘no-deal’ outcome as some are demanding. This could lead to increased demands for his resignation. It was rumoured before the election that May would have sacked Hammond if she had gained a big majority, but that has been made very unlikely by her humiliating loss.
Although many voters think of the Tory party as the party of Brexit they in fact remain bitterly divided on the issue and, as the representatives of the two extremes within cabinet, it may seem inevitable that either Johnson or Hammond will be forced out.
However, a sacking from May of either minister would likely bring about the end of her premiership and so it will be the path of the Brexit negotiations that decides their fate.