Prime Minister Theresa May recently posed for photographs in a Sunday newspaper wearing brown leather pants made by high-end fashion designer Amanda Wakeley, which cost £995 ($1,246.62). She may now wish she hadn’t.
As the media had fun with the revelation, Nicky Morgan, an increasingly outspoken member of parliament (MP) in May’s own Conservative Party, publicly mocked the expense, claiming she had only spent such a sum on her wedding dress. Morgan — who served as the U.K.’s education secretary until May sacked her on coming to power in July — is a leading figure in a group of Conservative MPs opposing the Prime Minister in calling for a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ which would see the U.K. keep as many ties as possible with the E.U. when the country secedes from the bloc in 2019.
Downing Street aides were furious at Morgan’s comments, and effectively banned Morgan from future meetings with the Prime Minister — turning what might have been a minor spat into a full-blown war of attrition. In texts revealed by a Sunday newspaper, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Fiona Hill, sent a text to another MP, Alistair Burt, saying “Don’t bring that woman to No 10 [Downing Street] again.” Morgan texted Hill directly to say: “No man brings me to any meeting”.
As trivial as the story may seem, there are fears this is symbolic of a wider malaise in the five-month-old government of Theresa May, who succeeded David Cameron in July after he lost the Brexit referendum. The cracks within her own party are appearing all too frequently – and not just over membership of the E.U., which has divided the Conservatives for decades. Earlier this month, Boris Johnson, the loquacious Foreign Secretary who was once a favorite for the nation’s top job, was slapped down by No 10 for criticising Britain’s ally, Saudi Arabia, for being behind “proxy wars” in the Middle East.
Just this week, Bob Neill, a senior lawmaker not in May’s cabinet, demanded that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling be sacked over London’s troubled rail operations because he “is not fit to hold office”. More generally, ministers have privately complained about May’s micro-management, a stark contrast to her predecessor David Cameron’s famously laissez-faire attitude to meetings and departmental responsibility.
One of the many former ministers sacked by May says her team’s style is too similar to Gordon Brown, the former Labour Prime Minister who replaced the more charismatic Tony Blair. “There’s a control element – lots of people are saying it’s like Gordon Brown: don’t step out of line or forces will be unleashed, like with Nicky Morgan,” says the former minister, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely. “Had that happened under Cameron, his team would have invited Nicky in to No 10 for a polite chat to say please don’t do that again. With them, it’s all out war, and ultimately that never works.”
May’s majority in the House of Commons is a mere 11 seats, meaning the two dozen or so lawmakers in the ‘soft Brexit’ group could easily rebel and vote against the government line on the withdrawal European Union. “There will be a rebellion,” the former minister predicts. “[The government] keeps placating the hard Brexiteers and that can’t go on forever.”
Morgan has clashed with May on several issues, including a new education strategy of reintroducing highly selective “grammar” schools. She tells TIME that Conservative backbenchers — elected MPs who are not part of the government — are effectively doing the job of the opposition Labour Party, currently led by a hard-left MP, Jeremy Corbyn, widely seen as ineffective. “When you’ve got a weak opposition then it’s incumbent on serious backbenchers to ask the questions and scrutinise on behalf of our constituents,” Morgan says.
“There are a lot of senior people on the Conservative backbenches who constructively speak out,” adds Neill, the lawmaker who called for the Transport Secretary’s resignation. “More so because there is virtually no opposition on the other side.”
However, May retains significant popular support while the party flies high in the polls – an ICM poll for The Guardian newspaper puts the Conservatives lead over Labour at 14%. Many within her party are also quick to defend her. James Cleverly, a fast-rising Brexit supporter from the 2015 intake of M.P.s, says: “Much of this is entirely normal and predictable. Disagreements are getting much more attention than they normally would because the Labour Party is failing in their duty to be a vocal opposition.”
Brandon Lewis, the policing and fire service minister, also defended Mrs May’s aides. “The P.M was a reforming Home Secretary and as P.M is delivering,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the P.M. and she is great to work with and for – as are her team.”
Dominic Raab, a pro-Brexit lawmaker who left his position as Justice Minister upon Mrs May’s leadership victory argues that party unity is in fact clear to see. He points to a Parliamentary vote on a Brexit motion last week when only one of the party’s E.U. supporters, former chancellor Ken Clarke, voted against a motion to formally trigger Brexit by March. By contrast, the staunch Europhile Liberal Democrats could only get five of their nine M.P.s to vote against the motion.
“Judge the Government by actions, not words,” he says. “The latest E.U. vote shows impressive Conservative unity, while Labour and the Lib Dems are badly split.” However, the Trousergate affair shows that words do matter in British politics. Mrs May’s supremacy remains, but there are cracks emerging that she will need to repair before they turn into chasms.