Boris Johnson? Michael Gove? Dominic Raab? Be afraid, be very afraid.
Theresa May’s press statements are like reboots of the “Star Wars” franchise. There’s a brief flash of excitement (“Is she going to call a general election?” “Is she going to say ‘f**k the lot of you, I’m off for a gin?'”) followed by crushing disappointment.
The U.K. prime minister has been promising since December that she won’t hang around. And she upped that last month to a promise to leave Downing Street once phase 1 of Brexit is completed. In any other circumstances, May would have been long gone. That she isn’t tells you everything you need to know about the alternatives on the Conservative benches.
Here are some of the Tories rumored to be planning a leadership bid and where they fit on the gaffe-o-meter. One might imagine that the higher the number of gaffes, the lower the chances of becoming prime minister. But this is the Conservative Party and Brexit Britain we’re talking about, so the opposite is true.
The gold standard of buffoonery, the Légion d’honneur of jackassery, the former foreign secretary and London mayor has few, if any, peers when it comes to putting his foot in it (speculation that Chris Grayling is Boris in a mask and corset were unconfirmed at the time of going to press).
There are too many gaffes to mention (although we have tried), but highlights include penning a poem accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, not a man known for his sense of humor, of having “relations” with a goat; saying the Tories are “used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing;” and wiping out a 10-year-old boy with an enthusiastic tackle during a game of street rugby.
Johnson’s replacement as foreign secretary is no stranger to a gaffe or two of his own. Hunt was culture secretary in 2012 when he was asked to ring a bell at an Olympics celebration. He looked horrified as the brass bell flew off its handle and sailed over the heads of a group of women on the deck of the HMS Belfast warship in London.
“Oh, oh dear! Are you all right? Health and safety!” he said.
Jeremy Hunt’s bell breaks during HMS Belfast’s London 2012 Olympics celebration
Hunt also tweeted a photo of himself with doctors without noticing a board listing the patients on the ward in the background. The information was quickly edited out of the picture, but not before critics had pointed out his breach of patient confidentiality.
He also forgot which country his wife is from: “My wife is Japanese — my wife is Chinese. That’s a terrible mistake to make,” he told his counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Yes, it is.
The work and pensions secretary was forced to apologize in early March for calling Labour’s Diane Abbott a “colored woman” in a radio interview.
It came four months after Rudd returned to the Cabinet after being sacked as home secretary over the Windrush scandal (which is far too serious to merely call a gaffe), in which people legally living in the U.K. were detained and deported. Rudd had told MPs that the Home Office did not have targets for removing illegal immigrants, but then a letter appeared in the press in which Rudd set out her “ambitious but deliverable” aim to deport 10 percent more illegal immigrants over the “next few years” to Theresa May.
For such a high-profile politician and Brexiteer, Gove has made remarkably few major gaffes. He apologized for using “clumsy” language after making a Harvey Weinstein joke on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, and has likened himself to Ike Turner, the notorious wife-beating husband of Tina Turner. On a lighter note, he was once given a telling-off by then PM David Cameron for blasting out Beyoncé from his new smartwatch during a Cabinet meeting.
The health secretary was dubbed “ridiculous” last month after claiming that a genetic test may have saved his life. Hancock was so impressed by the result that he called for more use of such predictive genetic tests, saying they would prevent illness and save lives. The medical profession wasn’t impressed. Professor David Curtis from University College London’s Genetics Institute told the Observer: “We don’t do them because they don’t work; they’re a waste of time and money.” Hancock also once marked National Poetry Day by retweeting a limerick saying that Labour is “quite full of queers.”
Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, once said, after a visit to a prison while she was justice secretary: “They’ve now got patrol dogs who are barking, which helps deter drones.” That’s bad news for Amazon and prompted one Labour wag to shout “It’s the minister who is barking!”
She’s also been roundly mocked for giving speeches saying that all children should “learn the proper names for animals and trees” (in Latin?) and used what we can charitably call a dramatic voice to say that “we import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.”
How different things could have been. After Michael Gove had knifed Boris Johnson in the front during the campaign to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader, we were left with Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom as the final two. Then Leadsom told an interviewer that having children made her a better choice to be prime minister than May, and it was all over. She hasn’t learned her lesson: Last month Leadson was criticized for saying it is the Foreign Office’s responsibility to help define Islamophobia in Britain — a statement which critics claimed meant she was implying that British Muslims are foreigners.
As third choice for Brexit secretary, showing up after the deal was done, Barclay has had less time than most to build up his gaffe repertoire. Still, he did get what was supposed to be the EU withdrawal date wrong and called Jean-Claude Juncker “Jean-Paul.”
Williamson looks like he loves being defense secretary because he gets to pretend he is a soldier. A year ago, in the wake of the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Williamson said: “Frankly, Russia should go away and should shut up.” Last we checked, Russia had not gone away.
Even Williamson’s own phone makes fun of him. During a parliamentary debate on Syria, the Siri service on his iPhone popped into life and said: “I’ve found something on the web for Syria.”
Brexit secretary No. 2 had a low bar to clear after taking over from David Davis, a man who could rarely be bothered to travel to Brussels for talks on Brexit even though that was his main job. Alas, Raab smashed head-first into the bar, saying he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant U.K. trade in goods is on the Dover-Calais crossing.
Water is not Raab’s strong suit. He once told a parliamentary committee: “We have made clear that we will do nothing that will draw a customs border down the Red Sea.” Thank goodness.