You can judge a minister by their special advisers. Ambitious ministers surround themselves with aides who view their primary loyalty as being to the minister rather than the Prime Minister or the government as a whole. But those who are just happy to be in Cabinet accept the advisers they are sent by Downing Street and CCHQ.
Theresa May was, without a doubt, in the former category. Her aides are ferocious defenders and promoters of her. Indeed, May is, in many ways, the Gordon Brown of this government. Anyone who her team thought was interfering in her domain got their head bitten off. Even on relatively minor issues like visas for Chinese tourists, they fought like tigers. No quarter is given to those who disagreed with the Home Office line, no matter how minor the subject.
So, when Michael Gove slated the Home Secretary’s approach to one of the great issues of our time, Islamic extremism, it was inevitable that there would be a reaction. Particularly, as the civil servant who Gove criticised, Charles Farr, is in a relationship with May’s adviser Fiona Cunningham.
But the Home Office’s reaction took aback even seasoned Westminster watchers. It didn’t just leak Cabinet correspondence attacking Gove, it published it.
This behaviour put Number 10 on the spot. Either it did nothing, which would be a de facto recognition that May’s Home Office was an independent fiefdom. Or, it moved to clip the Home Secretary’s wings, demanding that someone should carry the can.
It settled on the latter course, and last night—after a day of fraught negotiations—Cunningham resigned. In an attempt to even things out, Gove was also required to apologise. But there’s no doubt that it is the Home Secreetray who will be feeling most bruised this morning. She has lost one of her praetorian guard, a ferocious political street fighter.
The question now is how does May respond? Does she draw her horns in and simply get on with the job? Or, does she brood and encourage a desire for vengeance among her team? After all, the enforced departure of Brown’s spin doctor Charlie Whelan in 1999 didn’t exactly turn him into a team player.