Boris Johnson’s ministers have “given up on governing”, opposition parties have charged after Priti Patel pulled out of an MPs’ questioning session with minimal notice, while a junior health minister was sent to explain a crisis in ambulance services.
Johnson’s role is now that of a caretaker prime minister, with a brief to implement existing policies but make no significant new decisions. However, there is concern that uninterest inside No 10 plus a huge turnover of ministers has created a power vacuum.
Patel, the home secretary, had been scheduled to update MPs from the Commons home affairs committee on Wednesday morning about policies including progress on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
But late on Tuesday, Patel said she could not attend because of “recent changes in government”, without apparent elaboration.
Patel had spent days considering whether to join the crowded field to succeed Johnson as Conservative leader and thus prime minister but eventually decided against it.
Later on Wednesday, Labour was granted an urgent question on ambulance services in England, all of which have been placed on the top level of alert due to the scale of demand from factors including Covid and the current heatwave.
But rather than Steve Barclay, the health secretary, who replaced Sajid Javid last week after Javid resigned at the start of a wave of ministerial departures that removed Johnson, it was answered by Maria Caulfield, a junior minister.
Barclay’s absence was “a disgrace”, Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, told the Commons.
“Our NHS is going through the biggest crisis in its history, every ambulance service is on the highest level of alert, patients are forced to wait hours in pain and discomfort, and he is yet to say a word about any of it,” he said.
Downing Street has set out that Johnson, who will remain prime minister until 5 September, when the new leader takes over, will not make any major fiscal changes or introduce new policies.
While this officially means that even controversial policies like the Rwanda scheme can be pushed ahead, it has since emerged that no more deportation flights are planned for now.
“This is a government that has simply given up on governing,” said Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons.
“From flagrant breaches of longstanding conventions to simply not turning up for the day job, ministers are running scared of scrutiny. The Conservatives are out of touch, out of ideas, and propping up this caretaker government that’s unable, unwilling and incapable of governing.”
Daisy Cooper, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “After months of doing nothing but protect Boris Johnson, senior Conservatives now seem to have completely given up on the idea of governing the country.
“We haven’t heard a peep out of the health secretary this week despite an ambulance crisis in every part of England. The public will be watching with dismay as Conservative ministers fail to turn up to perform the most basic functions of government meeting.”
July 13, 2022 at 11:36PM Peter Walker Political correspondent