At political Cabinet this week, the chief whip warned ministers how difficult it was to hold the Tory party together, I write in The Sun this morning. Julian Smith warned them that noises off from the Cabinet made it even more of a struggle to maintain unity.
Smith is right. The Tory party is dangerously divided, a split is a real possibility. He’s also right that ministers sounding off over Brexit heighten these tensions. But what he didn’t mention is the most important thing, the need for leadership.
Ministers are putting forward their views on Brexit so publicly because there isn’t a clear government position. They think everything is still to play for, so a bit of public lobbying is justified.
May’s defenders in the Cabinet argue, with some justification, that she has come through bumpy periods like this before. But she has done this by making a decision. In Lancaster House, the Florence Speech and the deal with the EU in December, there were decisions and compromises made that members of the Cabinet—including senior ones—did not like. But, ultimately, they accepted that May was the Prime Minister and she had to lead.
I suspect the same dynamic would play out again if May gave a speech setting out the details of the economic relationship she wanted after Brexit. As I said in the magazine this week, no one wants to be the person responsible for bringing down the government and splitting the party.
The alternative, as one of those involved in the government’s preparations for the next phase of the negotiations warns, to May setting out the UK position is ‘more Merkel-style moments of ridicule in the run up to the March council’. This would undercut May’s standing at home. She simply cannot go on not offering more detail on what she wants.