Skip to Content

Coffee House

The ultimatum that will be given to Theresa May at cabinet today

29 January 2019

9:40 AM

29 January 2019

9:40 AM

There will be two more momentous issues discussed at this morning’s cabinet – neither on the PM’s own agenda, but which will be forced on her by recalcitrant colleagues.

Yes another two historic decisions. Yawn.

One group of ministers – Rudd, Gauke, Clark and conceivably Hammond and Lidington too, inter alia – will warn the PM that they will resign after cabinet unless she commits that there will be ANOTHER amendable meaningful vote on 13 February, that would allow them at that juncture to vote to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

Presumably when presented with this ultimatum the PM will concede. But who can be sure any more?

Otherwise they will vote for the Cooper/Boles amendment tonight – which turns the PM into servant rather than master of the Commons on the one issue that defines whether she is really in charge, namely when we leave the EU, and would be the equivalent of submitting their resignations.

To be clear, the number of centreground Tories who tell me they will ‘probably’ vote for Cooper/Boles means it probably passes, whether or not the ministers quit to join them in the rebel lobby – since Labour will whip its MPs to back it (though a fair number of Labour MPs will defy the whip and vote with the PM).

And then there is the ‘grassroots’ Brexit plan, concocted by a gang of Brexiter and Remainer junior ministers and backbenchers, led by the influential MPs Steve Baker and Nicky Morgan from outside the government, and Rob Buckland and Kit Malthouse from within.

Most of the cabinet have now been briefed on it by Morgan and Baker, despite the PM rather than because of her.

And the salient thing about it, in the words of one influential member of the cabinet, is ‘the party can unite behind it.’

This minister added ‘the explosion of relief at a unifying plan on the Tory WhatsApp group is extraordinary…’

Inevitably the cabinet is split down the middle on this Brexit Plan C, as it were – not on whether its well intentioned, but on whether it has the remotest chance of being accepted by the EU, most notably in respect of its light-touch free-trade-agreement with the EU to keep Northern Ireland’s border open, to replace the widely hated customs-union backstop.

One cabinet minister said: ‘the EU keeps asking us what we can actually ratify and this takes that forward.’

Another said: ‘It’s a unicorn, already rejected by the EU.’

The PM, her de facto deputy David Lidington and their chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins have already categorised it as a mythical impossible beast.

This is infuriating many Tory MPs who just want a bit of hope – which the Morgan/Baker plan gives them – that Brexit does not necessarily spell the break up and end of their historic party.

So there will be a big push on the PM to take Morgan/Baker to Brussels as her preferred alternative to the backstop, and therefore embrace it as consistent with the Brady amendment she is backing today and which stipulates that a Brexit deal will only be ratified if the EU dumps the current backstop.

Theresa May is being stretched and pulled in every direction by her own MPs and ministers. She is in office and not properly in power to an extent none of us have ever witnessed of a serving prime minister.

Quite how she stands it – and them – is beyond my powers of imagination.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page.

Show comments