Each politician has his or her own ideals, ambitions, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears. It follows that the more MPs there are involved in a scheme, the more likely these qualities are to clash and collide, like particles in an experiment. The discipline of party or government is usually required to keep politicians marching in step – and that includes Cabinet Ministers.
Which brings us to the five who want Theresa May to renegotiate aspects of her draft deal. One might assume that Ministers as senior as Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, when banded together, carry the authority of the Government with them. But in this case, they do not. It rests with Theresa May. She is Prime Minister. The Cabinet is her Cabinet. She controls its agenda. She shapes the minutes.
This is why she was able to see off last week’s Cabinet push to get her to renegotiate the deal. There are no votes round the Cabinet table, as Esther McVey discovered. There is no loyal Opposition. Cabinet decisions may not be unanimous but they are, to use a word that May deployed herself, collective. If a Cabinet Minister is opposed to one to the point where he cannot live with it, his only course is to resign – as McVey and Dominic Raab duly did in the meeting’s wake.
Only when a Prime Minister has lost her power do Cabinet Ministers gain more of it than she has. This, notoriously, was the case when Margaret Thatcher was forced out. She had beaten off a leadership challenge, but not by enough to maintain her command. Her successor could be in a situation similar, or worse, by the end of the coming week. But she is not there yet, if she ever will be. While she would be foolish to sack any of the five – her powers are not limitless – her grip is for the moment tenuous, but real.
She will also have a shrewd grasp of the position of each of the five. She won’t read Liam Fox as a resigner. Nor Chris Grayling. Michael Gove backed her plan very reluctantly in Cabinet, has tried to persuade her to change it, pondered resignation…but not resigned. It would be difficult for him now to go. That leaves Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt, perhaps the most likely of the five to walk (though one never knows). But that tangle of motives may divide them, which opens the door to divide and rule.
In short, the threat of resignation is ultimately the only device likely to make May yield to their push. And she will surely be thinking that if none of them quit last week, then why would any of them do so this week? It may be that other Cabinet Ministers will now join them. It is even possible that the Prime Minister will give way. But if they aren’t prepared to walk away, they will probably get an outcome they won’t like. Where else have we heard that recently?