May’s put-downs leave some muttering darkly about an anti-Johnson plot

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Some say May has been enjoying Johnson’s recent gaffes a little too much. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/PA

Few Conservative MPs were surprised when Theresa May distanced herself from Boris Johnson’s comments about Saudi Arabia and Iran waging “proxy wars” across the Middle East – it’s not the government line, at least in public.

But it was striking how many colleagues, even those who would not be Johnson’s natural allies, were ready to ride to the foreign secretary’s support; and how widely felt it was on Conservative backbenches that this latest putdown reflected almost as badly on May as on the gaffe-prone foreign secretary.

The former columnist and mayor of London has built a career on being outspoken and outrageous, and always looked an odd fit for the Foreign Office. But the perception among some is that May has enjoyed his recent gaffes a little too much.

Privately, his allies make clear that he no longer sees the funny side. Some even mutter darkly that there is a deliberate plot afoot to undermine him, because he is “dangerous” to the prime minister.

There is a growing pattern emerging from Downing Street, some of May’s colleagues say, of a regime that’s a bit too controlling, a bit too ready to bare its teeth in public.

May has repeatedly stressed that she believes in old-fashioned, cabinet-style government, and has restored formality and structure, after the “chumocracy” of the Cameron years.

But she and the No 10 team also exert fearsome control. In private, they have vetoed appointments (including when Johnson himself wanted to bring in his close lieutenant Will Walden as an adviser), discouraged ministers and their teams from meeting journalists, and launched a ferocious leak inquiry – the existence of which was itself leaked, to the Mail on Sunday.

The prime minister used one interview this week, with the Spectator, to criticise her own civil servants – and another, with the Financial Times, to try to rebut the claim she is incapable of delegating, insisting: “I don’t take all the decisions.” Several ministers are privately irked about the extent to which they feel micro-managed.

In public, May’s method of keeping Johnson and her other more wilful colleagues in check is the slapdown: sending out her spokespeople to distance her from her ministers’ public musings, whether it is David Davis on the single market, or Liam Fox on the Customs Union.

And some observers believe it’s becoming too much of a habit. A former cabinet minister who is no fan of the foreign secretary said: “It’s getting rather repetitive that a minister says something and then gets slapped down: people can’t understand why the script is not agreed in advance, for this or anything else.”

And May reserves an extra humiliation for Johnson: the jokey put-down. Most striking was her off-the-cuff remark at a Spectator awards ceremony, comparing her foreign secretary to the out-of-control dog choked by Michael Heseltine. “Boris, the dog was put down when its master decided it wasn’t needed any more,” she said.

She also made a joke about Johnson’s ability to stay “on message” in her party conference speech, and signed off on a line in the chancellor’s autumn statement mocking his leadership ambitions.

Managing the buccaneering Brexiters was always going to be difficult, with Johnson, the flamboyant figurehead of the leave campaign, perhaps the most difficult of all.

May needs them, to give the Brexiters’ blessing to whatever deal she can strike with the other 27 EU member states. She also needs them not to feel too free to speak their minds. But as one backbencher who supported the prime minister’s leadership campaign said on Friday: “If you slap someone enough times, they’re going to slap you back.”