May chose loyalty over ability with Karen Bradley - and is paying for it

Karen Bradley
Karen Bradley
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Just ten days after being appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last January, Karen Bradley gave a glimpse of what was to come.

Sitting around the board room table in Stormont House, Theresa May’s former Home Office protégé confidently told me that in the absence of devolution the government was unable to spend some of the £1 billion secured by the DUP to prop up the Prime Minister.

It was an odd claim because it contradicted the government’s line. But even when pressed, she was firm: “It’s really clear to me – I’d a meeting with the Northern Ireland Civil Service first thing this morning.”

Within minutes of her comments being reported, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds tweeted to say “Oh dear...this is not correct” and by the time I got back to the newsroom, Mrs Bradley was on the phone to “clarify” her inaccurate comments.

In what is a complicated and often thankless role, a mistake by a new appointee is eminently forgivable. Unfortunately, during 15 months in post Mrs Bradley has become a walking gaffe, known mainly for her bumbling.

In an interview with The House magazine last September, Mrs Bradley said that she had never been to Northern Ireland before her appointment and did not understand that nationalists do not vote for unionist parties. Undeterred by that elemental ignorance, Mrs May enthused that her friend was “doing an excellent job”.

Six weeks ago, Mrs Bradley told MPs that the 10% of Troubles killings by the security forces “were not crimes” – despite the fact some of them have led to soldiers being jailed – but were the actions of people operating in a “dignified and appropriate way”. Lacking the political nous to immediately grasp the scale of that error, she returned to the Commons to clarify – but not apologise.

Facing a wave of predictable outrage, Mrs Bradley was forced into a grovelling apology in which she used the memorable line: “I do not believe what I said.”

That same week, she misled Parliament by claiming that Northern Ireland’s five main parties endorse secrecy of past political donations.

Mrs Bradley has presided over an unprecedented governance vacuum at Stormont, leaving confusion as to who can take key decisions about public services.

But rather than sense the danger of leaving civil servants in control without democratic accountability, she has given mandarins a blank cheque. In astonishing comments, Mrs Bradley said it would be “absolutely wrong” for civil servants “to find their decisions being scrutinised by politicians”. Some of Stormont’s senior officials are less than thrilled that her refusal to take control has left them acting as quasi-politicians overseeing a multi-billion pound budget.

It is overwhelmingly not her fault that the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot agree to govern. But in the absence of devolution she has shown no ability to seek creative alternatives.

Every major Northern Irish political party has now lost confidence in Mrs Bradley, yet she seems unsackable, seemingly because of her unbending loyalty to Mrs May.

But keeping her in post is causing the long-standing Westminster convention of bipartisanship on Northern Ireland to fray, with her genteel Labour opposite number, Tony Lloyd, calling for her to consider her position.

At a time when the Prime Minister needs a capable and perceptive minister to advise her on the complexities of Northern Ireland, Theresa May has – through her decision to prioritise loyalty over ability – someone who in 15 months has only stayed overnight in Belfast 30 times. That is not only to Northern Ireland’s detriment but helps explain why Mrs May has so consistently misread the DUP, undermining herself.