NOT for the first time, Boris Johnson has been brutally slapped down in Cabinet for trying to put fire in this timid Government’s belly.
Will it be the last?
As the PM rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful in Davos tonight, Westminster buzzed with speculation that the frustrated Foreign Secretary is on the brink of resigning.
The only reason he would quit one of the greatest of the great offices of state would be to build a leadership campaign from the Tory backbenches.
The latest spat erupted as BoJo signalled plans to speak out for a multi-billion-pound boost for the beleaguered NHS.
He had the unspoken backing of fellow Brexit-supporting ministers who want voters to begin reaping the promised rewards for their 2016 vote to quit the EU.
They include Health Secretary, Brexit convert and potential leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, who made it clear today he would welcome more cash.
But before he even opened his mouth, Boris was warned off by arch-rival Phil Hammond, who insisted he alone is in charge of Government purse strings.
“Mr Johnson is Foreign Secretary,” snapped the Chancellor. “I gave the Health Secretary an extra £6billion in the recent Budget.”
Other ministers put the boot in for picking the wrong time and place. Criticism should be made in private, they muttered.
To Labour’s delight, the NHS crisis is dominating headlines, with BBC news bulletins filled with scenes of patients queuing on trolleys and in ambulances waiting for a bed in crammed hospital A&E wings.
But this row is over more than just the NHS. There is mounting dismay among ministers and MPs across all wings of the Tory Party over Theresa May’s limp and lacklustre performance as PM.
The mood has soured since Christmas.
The reshuffle shambles has knocked the wind out of an already demoralised Downing Street.
The Government is under fire on all fronts — from defence cuts to the release of black cab rapist John Worboys, from education reform to Mrs May’s failure to build desperately needed houses.
And, above all, on Brexit.
Ministers including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove fear the PM has become a willing captive of Remainer civil servants who want us to stay members of the EU in all but name.
Mrs May is blamed personally by some ministers for the incr
easingly sullen atmosphere, with the vacuum filled by increasingly confident Jeremy Corbyn.
Her performance has been compared adversely to wartime leader Winston Churchill, hero of the hit movie Darkest Hour.
Significantly, it was Churchill’s grandson, Tory squire Nicholas Soames, who this week branded Mrs May’s performance as “dull, dull, dull”.
The PM has stymied attempts by ministers to seize the initiative on key policies where the Tories are seen to be weak, such as Housing Minister Sajid Javid’s plan to speed up planning laws and build homes where people want to live. It was blocked because they were on the patch of Nimby Tory voters.
Hammond, once tipped for the chop, has seized his chance to reassert his grip on spending.
In an extraordinary act of rebellion, new defence supremo Gavin Williamson — one of Mrs May’s political protégés — licensed Army chiefs to lash out over his spending cuts.
The miserly defence budget has forced generals to slash troop numbers, cut back on equipment and impose draconian cuts on hard-up squaddies.
Army chiefs warn Britain is exposed to the real and present danger of surprise offensives by superior Russian forces spoiling for a fight under Kremlin tyrant Vladimir Putin.While military top brass are struggling to make ends meet, hard-up squaddies are facing a squeeze on welfare payments, with allowances for orphans rising by a miserly 75p a week.
These problems are not new. What is unusual is the readiness of the military high command to go on the attack publicly and the growing murmur of rebellion in Government ranks.
Respected ex-minister Nick Boles was the first to speak out last week, lambasting Mrs May for leading a Cabinet of “boiled rabbits”.
Downing Street is rattled by claims that the PM is dithering and indecisive.
There is disappointment that she seems unable to take bold, imaginative moves to seize the initiative and stand up for Tory values against the torrent of derision from the Labour Left.
She is safe, at least for the time being.
With Brexit negotiations reaching a crucial phase, there is no appetite for a damaging six-week leadership election.
For all his rivals’ efforts to discredit him as a “buffoon”, BoJo remains the biggest threat to Mrs May’s Downing Street tenancy.
Brexit is his trump card. As negotiations enter the end game, Boris’s lifelong ambitions depend on exactly how he plays his hand.
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