Every so often, politics imitates life. And, according to the newspapers over the weekend – with a certain inevitability – all is not entirely well amongst the new Cabinet. Tensions between Boris Johnson, newly installed as Foreign Secretary, and new International Trade Minister, Liam Fox, are said to be high.
The cause of the tension is said to be Dr Fox’s efforts at a land-grab. Specifically, he’s understood to have been trying to wrest some of the Foreign Office’s responsibilities over to him own department. Boris, while happy to transfer some staff over, is less amenable to seeing his team’s duties walking out the door to another government department. Cue the troubles in paradise.
It’s a saga seen countless times in the natural world, in which two dominant members of the pack or herd challenge each other for superiority. You could almost imagine the great Sir David Attenborough narrating.
Frankly, the only question is what took them so long? Dr Fox and Mr Johnson are hardly shy and retiring types and the heads of two departments that, if not in competition, certainly overlap in their responsibilities. And, ambitious individuals they doubtless are, both will want to make a success of their brief. That, for both them, means ensuring they’re in the driving seat when it comes to the UK’s engagement overseas.
The stakes are pretty high for both men. Dr Fox has been somewhat rehabilitated back into the Cabinet following a fall from grace at the MoD several years ago. He will want to stamp his authority on his Department, prove he’s the man for the job (and thus should be either left in post or advanced further), and – as an ardent Brexiter – will want to secure the best possible overseas trade deals as the UK prepares to leave the EU. Mr Johnson – his withdrawal from the Conservative leadership notwithstanding – will surely harbour prime ministerial aspirations. And those will hardly be helped if his authority at one of the great offices of state is whittled away – let’s not forget there’s also David Davis as Brexit Minister, whose responsibilities could also overlap with those of the Foreign Office.
Political commentators will of course ponder which of these big beasts will come out on top. One may well assert dominance over the other. But ultimately the big winner could be the new Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Mrs May is said to have intervened in the dispute while on holiday, and suggested how unimpressed she was with the state of play between two of her most senior Cabinet colleagues. But the jockeying for position between them will reinforce her position at the top of the tree as the Government’s ultimate arbiter. The overlap in responsibilities will push Dr Fox to achieve, while placing a check on Mr Johnson’s doubtless ambitions.
That’s not say this all some sort of Machiavellian plot cooked up in 10 Downing Street at the time of the reshuffle. But, at least for the moment, while it might cause a moment’s irritation for the new Prime Minister, the happy accident for her is that it strengthens her hand.