Pay cap exposes rifts in the Conservative Party

Boris Johnson on campaign

Movements at the top of the party in recent days suggest that the prime minister is losing her grip on power.

Things were going so well for Theresa May. She and her party dominated the polls. They went into the election hoping for a large majority, but instead were returned with a hung parliament and had to deal with the DUP.

It looks likely that Theresa May’s premiership will be short-lived, but Conservative MPs are already circling the weakened prime minister.

Four key incidents in recent days are worth pointing out as they show disunity at the top of the table and indicate just how little power the prime minister seemingly has.

Firstly, at the end of June the Independent reported that Philip Hammond and Theresa May disagreed about lifting the public sector pay cap. Furthermore, the Guardian also reported that “Hammond is reportedly campaigning within the cabinet for Theresa May to U-turn on her pledge to take the UK out of the customs union.” Tensions between the prime minister and the chancellor indicate rifts at the very top of the party. One wonders if this points to Hammond preparing for a leadership bid.

Secondly, according to the BBC, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis is reported to have been “hamstrung” by the prime minister in Brexit negotiations. This lack of flexibility is likely causing headaches at the Brexit department and shows further splits in government.

Thirdly, iNews has reported that the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has called for public sector pay bodies to be listened to if they support pay increases, a sign that the government could ease austerity in the wake of Labour’s surge in June’s polls.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Boris Johnson has come out in favour of removing the 1% public sector pay cap, as reported by the Telegraph. This suggests that the prime minister is losing control of her party, but as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out on Twitter, the foreign secretary did not vote against removing the pay cap last week. Perhaps this suggests that Johnson is trying to distinguish himself from Theresa May and looking to the party’s next leadership election.

Analysis: what does it all mean?

Much of the narrative after the vote to leave the EU was that the Conservatives were expected to be deeply split and face a bitter leadership contest, but that did not last long as Theresa May took over the party a month later while Labour entered a leadership battle. Things have now shifted; the election divided the Conservative party and exposed disagreements on the EU and public sector pay.

The disagreements indicate a degree of disuinity, but could also point to future leadership candidates making themselves distinct.

With the prime minister facing battles on multiple fronts, the question is: how long can she last?