IN the summer of 1858 the sheer volume of foul matter in the Thames sent forth a stench so stomach-churning the incident became known as the Great Stink. Even the rats gagged. The Victorian poor, contractually obliged to be always with us, stuck around, while the rich fled the city for the fresh air to be found elsewhere.

For some reason the Great Stink came to mind yesterday when looking at the sheer number of UK ministers taking advantage of a brief Westminster recess to leave the country on official business. In the space of a day, the Scottish Secretary flew to Norway, the Foreign Secretary to Washington DC, the Defence Secretary to Brussels, the Brexit Secretary to Poland, and the Culture Secretary to India. Anyone would think there was a Great Stink of 2017 afoot.

There is certainly something in the air, besides British ministers cruising at an altitude of 36,000ft. Opinions vary on when it first became apparent. Was it the General Election, the EU referendum, or before? Whatever is hanging over Downing Street it is as unavoidable as it is undeniable. Let us not be too alarmed. It never ceases to amaze how smoothly the ship of state sails on regardless of choppy political waters. Even so, every now and then the fog engulfing Theresa May’s Government lifts, and what one sees beneath fair takes the breath away.

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Let us gaze first on former International Development Secretary Priti Patel, the subject of the most recent Downing Street pantomime. In contrast to those Cabinet colleagues fleeing the country, Ms Patel yesterday headed back to the UK to face the music, and the stink, initially caused by her meeting Israeli politicians and officials while on holiday, without the knowledge or approval of Downing Street and the Foreign Office. Compounding her error, she then failed to give a full and proper account of those meetings. In any other government, in any other organisation or business, public or private, she would have been out the door immediately for such an obvious breach of standards not to mention an outright assault on plain old common sense. Instead, after a carpeting by the PM at the start of the week, Ms Patel carried on, only to be ordered back from a trip abroad when details of yet more meetings surfaced.

The second figure to emerge from the fog is Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary. In his short career as a diplomat, we have grown used to Mr Johnson making a three-legged bull in the world’s smallest china shop look like Charlemagne. Mr Johnson flies abroad and makes a pillock of himself, he plays hosts to dignitaries visiting the UK and makes a pillock of himself. There is no real harm done in the great swirl of things. But then along comes the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen, wife and mother.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had taken her baby daughter Gabriella to Iran to meet her grandparents. On trying to leave the country, Nazanin was stopped by police, accused of plotting against the regime, and jailed. A year and a half on, she remains in custody.

Back in London, Nazanin’s husband Richard has been conducting a measured, dignified campaign to secure his wife’s release by convincing the Iranians that his wife was in the country on holiday. The situation could not be more delicate. But then Mr Johnson appears before a Commons committee and tells MPs that Nazanin was in Iran “teaching people journalism”. Seizing on the comment, the Iranians are now threatening to double her original five year sentence.

When his mistake, and its potential consequences, were pointed out to him, Mr Johnson should have raced to the Commons to say sorry, plain and simple. What he offered instead was a mealy-mouthed excuse for an apology that even then had to be dragged out of him.

The cases of Mr Johnson and Ms Patel illustrate that much in the way Tony Blair’s government did not “do” God, so Mrs May’s cabinet does not “do” shame. Even when humility is exercised there are limits to the consequences. So Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, resigned because, in his view, his conduct fell short of what would be expected of the armed forces. What of the standards expected of him as an MP?

As ever, it is not the actions of an erring minister that leaves a smell. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, twits happen. It is how they are dealt with that proves the measure of a Prime Minister. Ms Patel should have gone on Monday, and Mr Johnson should have cleared his desk soon after. Being Foreign Secretary is not the same as being host on Have I Got News For You. One cannot simply brush away errors or move on swiftly if a line falls flat. As his boss once said, politics is not a game.

The past few days have shown the chronic weakness of this Prime Minister in the face of her party’s ever bolder eurosceptic wing. It is no coincidence that both MPs played leading parts in the Leave campaign. Mrs May may have pulled back from a decision on Ms Patel on Monday because she did not relish the thought of her being on the back benches marking the PM’s efforts to get a deal on Brexit. The same goes for Mr Johnson.

Then was the cumulative weight of negative events to be considered. To lose one minister is unfortunate, two is careless, and three could have the men in grey suits knocking on your door. Which brings us to the heart of this matter, where the events of the past few days leave the PM herself. She and her Cabinet now resemble a raggle-taggle band of ill-trained and badly equipped mountaineers roped together. With each Minister cut loose, her own position becomes ever more uncertain. Always at the forefront of her mind is that DUP-reliant working majority of just 13.

Mrs May slips and slides on for no better reason than there is no alternative, no Conservative MP able, willing, or mad enough to take her place. If there has been a weaker, more pathetic Conservative government in recent memory one is hard pushed to think of it. And the turmoil may not be over yet. As the broadcasts from outside Number Ten showed, it is too early for the Christmas tree to have gone up. One does wonder, however, if the May Christmas cards have been ordered. Might be an idea for Downing Street to keep that situation, like many another, under review.