If Theresa May loses the Commons vote on her deal next week, she will make a statement to the House about her response plans. Note the way that last sentence is written.
It doesn’t say: “the Government’s plans” or “the Cabinet’s plans” (which are, in effect, the same). This is because the latter collectively – and as far as can be discerned its members individually – don’t know what these might be. She could announce her resignation. She could throw the Government’s weight behind No Deal. Or No Brexit. Or an extension to Article 50, rather than revocation – perhaps with a second referendum in mind, perhaps not. Or the Norway or Canada-type deals that she has rejected. Or some other variant that no-one has anticipated. Or say that her deal has clearly failed, and that she is now the servant of the Commons, paving the way for indicative votes.
Or, most likely of all, play for time, say that she will re-open her conversations with Brussels to seek movement on the Northern Ireland backstop. The logic of her present position is to do exactly that: the closer to March 29 she gets, the more pressure will come to bear on the EU to make concessions, real or token, and on MPs to back her deal, for fear of the No Deal or No Brexit to which different groups of them are opposed. This is the logic of her game of chicken.
Some of those other options are more likely than others, and some can be ruled out altogether. Openly throwing her weight behind No Deal would risk a small number of Remain-orientated Conservative MPs voting with Jeremy Corbyn in a confidence vote. Backing No Brexit would divide the Conservative Party to the point where it might split altogether. This takes us back to where we started – the role of the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister will not go to the Commons with plans without discussing them with the Cabinet first: that would clearly be a risk too far. But it is striking that, less than a week out from the “meaningful vote”, its members have no idea what these might be. It is possible that May doesn’t know herself. But if she does, she is not the sort of person to take her colleagues into her confidence, especially under current circumstances. One Cabinet Minister wearily told ConservativeHome late last year that “the problem with Theresa is that she doesn’t trust anyone”. Until the last general election, her inner circle consisted of three people: Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill – and Philip May. Only one of them survives.
The conventional wisdom is: big majority, strong Prime Minister, weak Cabinet; small majority, weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet. In some senses, it holds true. Consider an example from this morning. On the one hand, Greg Clark is preparing his department for No Deal. On the other, he today urges Parliament to “move quickly and act responsibly to establish what will, and will not, command support. Parliament can establish that it wants a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out”. In short, he is urging MPs to seek to block No Deal if May’s deal falls – thereby urging them to oppose an outcome which he is tasked to prepare for. This is not the Government position.
In one sense, Clark should resign. In another, one can’t really blame him for not doing so. After all, Cabinet discipline has broken down altogether, with its members openly briefly journalists about what they plan to say in its meetings, and reporting back about what happens afterwards. Why should the Business Secretary quit while others stay? One senior member of the lobby told ConservativeHome yesterday that this is the leakiest Cabinet in his experience – not, he added, that journalists should complain about it. “It’s a political Mogadishu out there,” he said, presumably thinking back to Black Hawk Down, “with Cabinet members firing off their machine guns from the back of trucks”.
None the less, there is reason to argue that what we are actually seeing is: small majority, weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet. The ultimate weapon of an unhappy Cabinet member is resignation – or the threat of it. But May has survived the loss of four Cabinet members in scarcely more than six months: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey. The last discovered the hard way that the Prime Minister controls the agenda and minutes of Cabinet meetings, and that there are no votes.
Those Leavers who didn’t resign over the deal have been forced to swallow the logic of their decision. The Michael Gove who joked in Cabinet this week about anti-deal Conservative MPs was recently such a person himself, turning down the Brexit Secretary post rather than propound the Prime Minister’s position. At Cabinet level, passive acceptance of a view must ultimately morph into active propagandising for it.
Short of resignation, there is always the more politicianly option of working with Cabinet colleagues to shift the Prime Minister’s position. But this takes us to the heart of the matter. There is no Cabinet consensus about what to do if the deal goes down. Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and the surviving referendum Leavers lean towards No Deal in extremis. Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Clark and others are setting themselves against No Deal completely. Furthermore, May, though scarred by last month’s confidence ballot, survived it. She cannot be formally challenged as Party leader until the end of this year. In a way, then, she now draws power from her Cabinet’s divisions and indecision. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen.
The European Union complains that the Government doesn’t know where it wants to end up. Closely aligned to the EU or more distant? Norway or Canada? It is absolutely right.
Cabinet members are united on one point, however. All now hope that May’s deal passes Parliament, if not next week, then later. And, collectively, they will carry on hoping – as authority drains away from them to Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, and the Opposition, among whose numbers we of naturally include the Speaker. This Cabinet is firewood.