Farewell Priti hello Penny, and solving the Northern Ireland conundrum
Has Theresa May’s government been fatally weakened by the forced departure of Priti Patel? And is any progress being made in addressing the Northern Ireland border problem after Brexit? With George Parker and Alex Barker of the Financial Times, plus Henry Newman from the Open Europe think tank. Presented by Sebastian Payne. Produced by Madison Darbyshire.
resented by Sebastian Payne. Produced by Madison Darbyshire. Edited by Trixia Abao.
Welcome to FT Politics, the Financial Times's podcast on all things British politics. I'm Sebastian Payne, and in this week's episode we will be discussing the departure of Priti Patel, the arrival of Penny Mordaunt, and how Brexit questions about Northern Ireland can be resolved. I'm delighted to be joined by our political editor, George Parker, Brussels bureau chief, Alex Barker, and Henry Newman from the Open Europe think tank. Thank you all for joining.
It's all been going so well for Theresa May's government this week. The row over Priti Patel's secret meetings in Israel reached a breaking point, with the International Development Secretary jetting halfway across the world to hand in her resignation. Her replacement came in the form of the former Disability Minister, Penny Mordaunt. This has pleased Conservative MPs, but the May government is still anything but strong and stable. Is the Prime Minister in as much power as some seem to think?
Sir George Parker, it's been another tumultuous week in British politics. We've had the second cabinet resignation in the space of a fortnight, with the first, Sir Michael Fallon, and now Priti Patel. Give us a bit of background on how we arrived at this, and Ms Patel decided to resign.
Well, [INAUDIBLE] in the beginning. First of all, the BBC's James Landale discovered that Priti Patel had been on a trip to Israel during the summer, and had held and unauthorised meeting. She explained that she was on a private family holiday. But it soon developed into a much bigger story about the fact that she met the Israeli Prime Minister while she was there, without telling the Foreign Office, or indeed, Number 10. And then, when she was called in by Theresa May for an explanation, she didn't give a full explanation. Half-hearted one really.
And when it emerged that other meetings had taken place she was summoned back from an official to Africa, whereupon she was forced, effectively, to resign by the Prime Minister. And as you say, it was the second resignation in the course of a week, and is a sign of the turmoil that is gripping Theresa May's government at the moment.
Yes, you do have to feel a little bit sorry for the Prime Minister, because, obviously, you've got the sexual harassment scandals continuing to engulf Westminster. Everybody waiting to see who or what is going to emerge next. But the Priti Patel thing really came out of nowhere. And I think a lot of people have been wondering, what was she really up to here? She's had eyes on a leadership bid at some point in the future. Maybe she still will.
And there's been some speculation she was trying to build bridges with other foreign leaders, with other donors, for that in the future. But it seems very naive of Ms Patel to think she could hold a Secretary of State brief, and just dip straight into what the Foreign Office should be doing, without telling the Foreign Office. And then, apparently misleading the Prime Minister.
As you say, it's not Theresa May's fault that her Ministers behave in a completely ridiculous fashion, as Priti Patel did, or indeed, that Ministers, in the case of Sir Michael Fallon, embroiled in allegations of improper behaviour. But bad luck tends to stick to you when you're in trouble, and that's what's happening at the moment. In the case of Priti Patel, you're right. Lots of rumours and speculation about why she did it.
And I think probably you're right. That she was keen to ingratiate herself with big Tory donors. There's no doubt at all that she fancied a chance at the Tory leadership. Building up donor base would be one way of doing it. There's another thing, which is she doesn't really fit into the sort of neat mode of a minister who works within the Whitehall machine. She's always wanted to do things slightly outside the official net. If you wanted to try and fix up a lunch with Priti Patel, for example, you'd often do it privately, rather than through a private office. So it's kind of the way she did business.
But [INAUDIBLE] and stupidity, as you alluded to there. The idea that you could somehow pursue your own private foreign policy in an area sensitive as the Middle East, have meetings with the Prime Minister of Israel, amongst eleven other officials, and then expect it not to come out-- it's extraordinary. So I think you can have all sorts of theories. Ultimately, Priti Patel was brought down by her own [INAUDIBLE].
And then just to add another level of complexity, we've had this counter-accusation that was first voiced in the Jewish Chronicle, and is also being promoted by Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, that there was some kind of conspiracy between Downing Street and Ms Patel about these meetings, and they actually did know more about them. But they somehow said to her, don't say this, don't admit to it in public. And we'll brush it under the carpet.
And it's not-- but Number 10 has strongly denied it this week. It seems quite odd to me they would want to engage someone like Ms Patel, who is not really in the May tent at all, in some kind of conspiracy.
No. Exactly. You rightly point out, Downing Street has categorically denied those things. If Theresa May wanted some sort of back channel to Netanyahu, I think the last person she would have entrusted with that kind of mission would have been Priti Patel. And, as we always know, with these scandals, often the cover-up rather than the initial offence brings the minister down. And so the idea that Downing Street would want to become complicit in covering up, I think, is frankly unbelievable. Of course that could gone-- brought the danger much closer to Theresa May's front door.
So Patel was out, and Penny was in. Penny Morlaund, who was the Disability Minister, has now been promoted to the cabinet. And unlike Gavin Williamson's appointment the Defence Secretary last week, George, it seems like it's gone pretty well. Most Tory MPs I spoke to this week seemed to think it was actually a good move by Theresa May, because Penny is well respected, she's served several ministerial portfolios, she's a Brexiter, so she holds that balance within the cabinet. And also, she's female. She's keeping the balance at the top of government right.
So Theresa May's made the right call here, even if it was quite enforced by her party. I'd heard there was quite a lot of back-channeling from Conservative MPs, saying, Penny is the obvious solution to replace Priti. If you don't put her in here, we're going to be very unhappy.
Yes, I think that's right. Most people were speculating that Penny Mordaunt would have been the obvious choice to replace Sir Michal Fallon last week, given the fact she has a military background. And as you say, she's popular in the Conservative Party. Actually, quite popular across party lines. She's made a couple of memorable, somewhat ribald speeches in the House of Commons, which earned her quite a lot of kudos among her colleagues. I think she's a popular-- I'm a bit surprised she wasn't appointed to the Ministry of Defense last week.
And as you say, given the way that Theresa May's appointment of Gavin Williamson spectacularly backfired last week, I think if she'd overlooked Penny Mordaunt again, that would have caused trouble. And it's actually, as you say-- she's a like-for-like replacement for Patel. Tell She's a Brexiter. She's a woman. And in fact, there are very few people in that little subset of MPs who were in a ministerial position already that Theresa May could have chosen. So in the end, there was pretty much a straightforward choice, I think. And the right one.
And obviously that's entailed another bit of a reshuffle, with two other appointments with Sarah Newton replacing Penny Mordaunt in the Disability brief. But more interesting, Victoria Atkins, who is the first 2015 MP to be promoted into ministerial office. And there's been a lot of talk and examination of the 2015 and 27 intake of Tory MPs. Because these are Cameron's children. People who were-- came into the party inspired by him, moulded in his vision of liberal conservatism, as opposed to past leaders.
And the party's been yearning for these people to be even more of a platform. And you've got people like Tom Tugendhat, at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, James Cleverly and Kemi Badenoch, who have got public profiles. But Victoria Atkins is the first to jump that line into government there. And again, seems like an appointment that's gone down pretty well across the party.
Yeah. Extremely well. I can't claim to know Victoria Atkins very well. But the fact of the matter is it's the symbolism. The fact that she's the first of the 2015 intake into the government. And you alluded to it there, that there's a whole generation of MPs, who are talented, quite a few of them with military backgrounds, interestingly, who came in hoping to transform society, do good work, and they found themselves bogged down in this parliament that's going to be dominated by Brexit-- a policy which many of them have never supported. And they're deeply frustrated.
So there's a yearning, as you say, for people from that generation to get their foot on the ministerial ladder. And it's interesting that she's been appointed now. And of course, you know, we talk about this. There's this generation waiting. But two years, frankly, is not very long, is it, really? When you look back in the historical sweep of things. So, say, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Let's see. They were elected as MPs in 1983. It was 14 years before they came to senior office. political careers are being accelerated.
And I think, sometimes, to the detriment of British politics. You get ministers who are not particularly experienced, getting into quite prominent positions. But I think the 2015 intake should be brought on as quickly as possible. The only question, though, is whether any of them are going to be ready for the battle for the succession, when Theresa May goes, whenever that might be. It would be optimistic, from her point of view, if she gets through to 2019. Will the Victoria Atkins generation be quite ready to move up to that top level by then? I somehow doubt it. But it's an interesting experiment.
I think this is going to be the big decision for the party, when the era of May comes to an end. Who knows when that will be at this point, but they want to present the conservative party that goes to the country next time as a new party, much like how Jeremy Corbin's Labour Party is very different to Ed Miliband's Labour Party. And so by doing that, they want to have new faces, new policies, and new ideas. But as you said, it's about that experience there.
But Theresa May did avoid having a much bigger reshuffle. And it's something the FT has urged the Prime Minister to do, saying she doesn't really have that much to lose at the moment, with the drip of her authority being [INAUDIBLE] away every single day. And I suppose the real question now is focusing on Boris Johnson and Damian Green.
So Boris Johnson has made these very controversial remarks about a British citizen who's currently imprisoned in Iran, where he said that she was training journalists, not accused of training journalists, and has totally refused this week to come back from that. And also the ongoing investigation into Damian Green. How do you see those two playing out, George? Do you think there's any chance of them having to leave the cabinet, or are we going to have a bit of calm and stability for the foreseeable future?
I doubt the latter. I mean, the reason that she didn't conduct a much bigger reshuffle, apart from anything else, was because of the continuing cloud of doubts over some of her senior ministers. I mean, you could barely make it up, could you? The Priti Patel case, the Sir Michael Fallon case. The fact that Damian Green, [INAUDIBLE] is having his private life trolled through by the cabinet office. Boris Johnson making mistaken comments which could earn a British citizen an additional five years in gaol. All of these things contribute to a sense of chaos.
You're right. The FT has urged Theresa May to have a wider reshuffle. I think that probably would be a good idea, in the normal scheme of things. I think the problem that she's grappling with, of course, is that you demote two or three ministers, and you end up with two or three enemies on the back benches. And when you've only got a majority of thirteen, with the help of the DUP, can you afford to make those kinds of enemies? So that's what's holding her back.
But yes. I mean, can Boris survive? I mean, there's speculation, as we know, that maybe, if she was being super bold after the budget, she could do a [INAUDIBLE] demotion of Boris Johnson on the Back side and Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, on the Remain side. But she's going to have to be really brave to do that. Just think how the markets would react if Philip Hammond, often regarded in the city and in business as the grownup in the room on Brexit. If he was removed, how would that go down?
I think it's hard to remove Boris Johnson without having a sort of balancing sacking on the other side of the ledger. So, although I think most of us would agree that refreshing this moribund cabinet would be an excellent idea, I'm somewhat doubtful it's going to happen any time soon.
One thing we have seen this week, though, I think, is how much the May government is really a coalition between Remainers and Leavers. Not really too dissimilar to the Liberal Democratic Conservative administration of 2010 to 2015. Because constantly, all the talk has been, how can she keep that balance with the cabinet? Not who's the best person for the job.
Because if you were taking an entirely objective view, you might say Rory Stewart, who is a Junior Minister at the Department of International Trade, and historian-- he's someone who'd be much better suited, say, for the DFID roll. But he's not a Brexiter, in the way that Penny Mordaunt is. And I guess this is going to be the constant challenge for the May government, however long it lasts, is keeping those sides of the party happy. And that really binds her hands in how much she can do.
Yeah. And that's particularly relevant because, of course, we've got the biggest decision facing this government looming over the horizon-- probably has to be taken in the next two or three months-- which is what is Britain's final relationship with the EU going to look like? Are we going to be as a remote Canada-style country, or are we going to have a much closer Norwegian-style relationship?
And that's an issue which is a huge fault line, running through the Conservative Party, and running right through the cabinet. So until that issue is resolved, at least, we can only see this government through the prism of Brexit. And of course, probably beyond that. You know, the fact that we're still talking about possibility that maybe, somehow, in 2019, the country might change its mind. And whether Article 50 can be reversed. And Theresa May writing the date of Brexit into the bills to make sure it's not reversed.
The fact that that is even still out there suggests that Brexit will be the dominant theme through 2019, until Theresa May leaves office probably, and then even beyond that. We're into a transition period, which will take us more or less to the end of the Parliament. So Brexit will dominate this Parliament. And I can't remember who it was that said it-- it was-- George Bridges who said that for some to think of this Parliament as not being about Brexit will be a bit like thinking the 1940-1945 Parliament wasn't about World War II.
Indeed. And finally, the last question we've really had on, and been discussing this week is, is this government really on the edge? And I think that's a bit over-egged. because if Theresa May was to stand down-- it's relatively rare for Prime Ministers to stand down just out, not after an election or a botched referendum, or what have you-- because there's no obvious choice to replace her. And through all these scandals and political intrigue, all the obvious candidates the top of government, except, perhaps, Amber Rudd, are not really eligible to stand to challenge her, or to run for the leadership after she goes.
So even though it's been a very difficult week for Theresa May, I still feel as if the most likely thing is that she's going to be here for a bit longer, and the party really does want her to see through Brexit. Because if someone else arrives, as you've said, it opens up the whole can of worms about what does it look like, and what does the party stand for. So, although it's tempting to say this situation is all totally unsustainable, it feels as if it might still be quite sustainable for a bit longer.
Well, John Major showed how sustainable this kind of ongoing chaos can be in the 1990s, didn't he? And, yes, you're right. We quite frequently read in other newspapers that Theresa May is one crisis away from being toppled. I think, frankly, she could have a different crisis every week-- actually more or less what's happening at the moment-- and she'd still be safe. Because as you say, the calculation the Tory party has made is that removing Theresa May would create more problems than it solved.
The big unknown is who would emerge her successor. The one known is that it would be a bruising, bloody, civil war, with Europe at its heart, which would probably tear the Conservative Party apart. So nobody thinks that Theresa May is doing a fantastic job in the Conservative Party. But what they do think is that removing her would cause a helluva lot more problems than it would solve. The
The Brexit talks started up again this week, and you didn't hear that much about them, because not much progress has been made. The deadlock over the UK's divorce bill, the lack of deal over EU citizens' rights, and the continued complicated questions about the border with Northern Irish Republic, mean that no agreement on the first stage of talks is on the horizon. Michel Barnier from the EU side said in his press conference today there's just two weeks left to save an orderly Brexit before that crucial December summit.
Alex Barker, just how bad are things here? We always thought there was going to be a bit of a stalemate in November. Have we reached that part? Or is stuff happening behind the scenes?
There is a serious discussion going on behind the scenes. But you can feel the mood among some of the negotiators is turning a bit more pessimistic. It's quite a big challenge to pull everything together for December. They can see a deal but time is short. Politics is difficult. And I'm not sure quite yet that they've really got to a point of understanding how they can make the mix work for Theresa May and for the EU side.
Because Henry Newman, obviously. There's-- both sides have got their stakeholders here. For Theresa May, her main thing is to keep an eye on the Brexiters in her party. And on the issue of citizens' rights, I think [INAUDIBLE] is probably closest to finding some kind of agreement. But it comes back to this divorce bill, and the FT had a story this week that the Treasury has essentially signed off whatever Theresa May needs to pay to make that happen.
There might be something in the budget on the 22nd of November. But there's still been no talk at home here about this idea of having to up how much is being paid. And again, it's all spoken about in generalities. But that's really owed the prime minister to do the running on that issue.
Completely. And I think this has obviously been a very difficult few weeks for the Prime Minister with all kinds of other distractions. The loss of two cabinet ministers in a week, and so on. So many things on her plate. But she does need to get a move on the money. And she said quite a lot in her Florence speech, but she hasn't laid out any further details.
That was two months ago.
Right. And also, of those were sentences in a speech, rather than a technical document which the EU is looking for, so that they can then negotiate around. Equally, I mean, I accept Alex's point that the politics is difficult. And there's things to get on with. But ultimately, the sufficient progress test is a political test. It's not a technical test. And diplomats of a senior and important EU country made that very clear to me, that they inserted the phrase "sufficient progress" precisely because it was not a technical test, and could be massaged. So, if the commission wants to wave the UK through, they can wave the UK through. I don't think they'll that until we're clear about the money.
Well, I mean, just on that point, you know, because it is a political test, it's actually, probably, not in the gift of the commission entirely. And, you know, I can't imagine a situation where Michel Barnier, the EU's negotiator, doesn't sign off sufficient progress and the member states do. But I can imagine a position where the commission say, look, we've done pretty well, but the members take a bit of a tougher line.
They've shown they're willing to do that already, in October, when he suggested during transition talks. And I think that political call is still going to be quite unpredictable. They're pretty unified, and, you can see, we will discuss the Irish move later. But everyone now sees the end game approaching on the divorce, and making sure that they're covered in the way they want to be on their various interests.
What do you give the chances of getting that nod in December now, Alex? Because for Theresa May this is a huge test in the UK. If it doesn't go through, then I'm sure a lot of it will be blamed on this so-called intransigence of Brussels. But a lot of it will be put on her plate too. And it would be seen as a failure in her government as well. So they must be aware.
And we heard that Brussels is contemplating or preparing for a potential change of Prime Minister, given the events that, Henry was saying, that we've had this week with two cabinet ministers departing. So they must be aware this is a really crucial time for the British government as well as the Brexit talks.
Indeed. I mean, everyone's watching from here, and see a very messy political situation. And if anything, that's making them kind of shy away from engaging in the kind of compromises or overtures that you might imagine in a kind of classic EU internal negotiation. The response to it has been, look, just hold the line for the moment. It's for them to sort out, and for her to come to us. Can't get involved in the Tory party politics.
Is a deal possible in December? Absolutely. There are people here who think you can engineer something so you have a big financial offer effectively coming with simultaneous agreement on the kind of in-principle transition agreement. But a lot will depend on what Theresa May thinks she's willing to give on the money, what she thinks will be tolerated in Westminster, and whether that reaches their kind of bottom line on what they're expecting.
I think on the EU side, the expectations of what they will get on the financial side have been growing since the election. And it's pretty close to their kind of opening demands on this. And I think that's where the difficulty might come.
The people inside the Department for Exiting the European Union are whispering in my direction of sort of numbers around 48 billion, which, I think, would go quite a long way to meeting those demands. I think there was a couple of interesting things, though, in today's press comment from Barnier. One of which was, he sort of referred to criticisms. He said he follows the debate in the UK very closely. And sort of said that he was surprised by the criticism he got for meeting with Nick Clegg.
Which I thought was interesting in lots of levels. I think it was a rather ill-advised meeting, probably from an eth-- if the Commission wants to be seen to be not taking part in UK political questions, then he should be careful about the meetings he has here, also with UK politicians. But the most interesting thing really was this point. He was asked a question, and-- are the next two weeks completely crucial? Do we have to see compromise or move from the UK within two weeks to get through? And he said, yes. And I was wondering, Alex, if you felt that was a slightly set-up question really, or what that two weeks rests on.
No, I think the two weeks probably surprised some of his team, as well. At least in how emphatically he said yes. What they're really thinking about is a timetable of the internal meetings that they have, laid out already, for when they would need to have a negotiating round, get an offer from the Brits, take it back to the European-- the other EU member states. And then at that point, start trigger their drafting process for guidelines on the transition, which you think are going to have to come together.
My understanding was it's probably three weeks that is more realistic. The week of the twenty-seventh for kind of crunch negotiating round. But a lot of the political groundwork, I think, will probably have to be done in the week before that, at leader level. Before the money is put down, I think Theresa May needs some assurances on what she would receive in return. And those discussions might happen around-- there's an Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on the week of the 20th, shortly after the budget. That's going to be a pretty crucial week. And if the budget goes badly, it might make the Brexit discussions harder too.
So the key issue that's emerged, out of those three that we're starting to get a bit more concerned about, is Northern Ireland, Alex. Because, as you said, on the bill, it's really over to Theresa May to see how far she can go. Is that far enough on citizens right, as we've said before. They're pretty close to getting somewhere on that. But on Northern Ireland, it really is very tricky, because there's so much trade between the border with the Republic of Ireland. And then this idea came out of the EU that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union so there isn't a hard border, for political reasons.
Nobody wants a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But it's quite hard to see how that's going to work if Northern Ireland exit the customs union and the single market after a Brexit transition, so say, in 2021. What was the EU's idea for floating that idea?
What we've really seen is a shift in the Irish diplomatic tactics over the last week or so. I mean, it kind of fits in the kind of canon of the Irish policy on Brexit. But they've made a diplomatic move, basically put on the table what they're looking for out of the December agreement. And it's not just a commitment from the UK to there not being a hard border on the island, and agreement that the principles of the Good Friday Agreement stand. It's actual, tangible, actionable word around that. And in particular, a commitment to no, or to avoid, or have no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Which must have been impossible for them-- for the UK to have fulfilled.
They would say, well, we're not-- we're not talking about the UK Constitution. It's not a constitutional issue. It's a kind of technical thing about the rules, [INAUDIBLE] sanitary rules, [INAUDIBLE] food and agriculture. The single energy market. But yes. Ultimately, it's the deeply political question, because at the moment, there is a degree of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Because it's all under the umbrella of the EU.
Once that umbrella goes, the question is who enforces these rules? Who's court? Who oversees them? And if the UK is making trade deals around the world, they would have to carve out Northern Ireland. And those are pretty fundamental questions. And I think that really explains what a highly sensitive this move has been by the Irish at this point. And its high stake, and they're aiming high.
What kind of solutions do you think there is, Henry, to the Ireland question? Because during the Brexit referendum, Ireland didn't really get much of a look. And it was mostly into that category of things will be fine and work themselves out. But as the complexities have unfurled, nope. It's clear. Nobody wants a hard border. The UK government with never sanction that.
And certainly, Theresa May's government is propped up by the DUP, which is one of the major political parties in Northern Ireland. They would never sanction a hard border either as well. And as the White Paper that came out this summer had various solutions of technological nature, of having some kind of special status for Northern Ireland. Where do you see this debate going? And do you think the UK can offer something that will keep the EU happy on this?
Possibly. But I think what we're seeing with this sort of demarche from the Irish is a sort of attempt to leverage UK weakness in the negotiations, and UK domestic political weakness at the moment, to make sure that they get more of a concrete move over the next few weeks before sufficient progress is signed off, to sort of put their issue back on the table. I think, overall, the Irish have played the politics of this pretty well. And are making sure that Northern Ireland, Ireland, was one of the issues in the first stage of the negotiations, and so on. And they're continuing to play hardball.
I do think this is soluble. I think there's strong political will on both sides. I don't think we'll be able to find all the answers, obviously, at this stage of the negotiations. Not least because we don't know what our future customs and other relations are like. And not least because the UK government, itself, hasn't decided what sort of future trade policy it wants. If it does indeed want to be able to seriously diverge from the EU in regulatory terms in future, I think we have to be able to do that. But that question hasn't been answered within government, let alone debated.
And finally, Alex, I suppose the last question towards this summit is, if it's not looking as if progress is going to be made-- and as you said, it may or may not at this stage-- is there any chance that the EU 27 will start to break up? Because they've been so unified behind Michel Barnier and his negotiating position. This would be such high stakes if that nod isn't given. Could that be a game changer?
Over time, it's obviously going to become more and more difficult for the 27 to maintain this front. I think, in December, there wouldn't a kind of serious fragmentation of their position. There'd clearly be a very lively debate. Especially if the UK make an offer that's pretty close to what they would have wanted on sufficient progress. The problem with it not going well in December is that, before the October summit, you had the Florence speech. There was a sense of an offer being made, of a bit of positive mood. The EU could reciprocate that.
I think if it goes badly in the next few weeks, it's going to be harder to make that December summit look like some kind of a constructive step towards a deal. And it will make it difficult. And the closer-- the further you get into 2018, the more the interests of the member states will diverge between those with kind of very intense trading relations with the UK, Ireland, and the very existential problems it faces, and other member states that have a very different agenda and priorities.
And that's it for this week's episode of FT Politics. Thank you very much to George, Alex, and Henry for joining us. We'll be back next week for another instalment. FT Politics was presented by Sebastian Payne and produced by Madison Darbyshire. Until next time, thanks for listening.