On my show last night, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid captured why nine of his ministerial colleagues have told the Prime Minister they may have to resign next week (though he won’t be joining them). Javid said that a no-deal Brexit would be damaging for the UK, that he didn’t want it, that the risk of it had increased but that there was no way to stop it.
Well four cabinet ministers and five junior ministers agree on everything but that last point. In two separate meetings with the PM on Monday, they told her that either she has to agree to ask the EU to delay Brexit, if it looks impossible to get a deal through parliament by Brexit day on 29 March, or they’ll resign to vote for the Cooper-Letwin amendment next week that would force her to ask for a delay in those circumstances.
As Tom Newton Dunn wrote in this morning’s Sun, the four Cabinet ministers urging the PM to effectively rule out no deal were the Justice Secretary David Gauke, the Business Secretary Greg Clark, the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and the Scottish Secretary David Mundell.
In a separate meeting, five junior ministers – the defence minister Tobias Ellwood, the health minister Steve Brine, the solicitor general Robert Buckland, the business minister Richard Harrington and the work and pensions minister (who serves under Rudd) Sarah Newton – delivered the same message. As I understand it, those junior ministers also effectively held notes from four other junior ministers, who happened to be away, saying they too were likely to quit if no deal stays on the table.
Also, an undisclosed number of parliamentary private secretaries – the most junior members of the government – were scheduled to have a meeting of their own with the PM to signal that they too want no deal squished, as far as the PM is able to do this (remember she has to ask the EU to delay Brexit, she has no unilateral power to do so). So faced with the possibility that she could see more voluntary ministerial and government resignations than at any point in modern recorded political history – a minimum of nine but perhaps 20-ish – what will the PM do?
“Truthfully we have no idea” said one of the anxious ministers. “And what is extraordinary is that no one around her has any idea”.
Another said: “I think it is possibly she’ll call our bluff and we will have to resign. I know that sounds mad, but it is definitely a risk”.
What’s her way out?
“I would like her to permit a free vote on Cooper Letwin, so that we could vote with our consciences and not resign” said one minister.
In those circumstances Cooper Letwin would probably be passed, but it’s not 100 per cent guaranteed. The mystery for the nine ministers on the verge of quitting is why the de facto deputy prime minister David Lidington isn’t one of them, since – in the words of a minister – “there isn’t a scintilla of difference between our view that no deal is a catastrophe and his”.
Another minister who sees no deal as poo on stilts is the chancellor Philip Hammond. As I have said before, he would quit if the PM adopted no-deal as the policy objective – but in the meantime he is focussing exclusively on trying to take it off the table by securing a deal. But Hammond is anything but naive and he’ll be aware that the moment may come when he has to resign (he won’t threaten it, he’ll just do it).
That said he’s conflicted. The mutual antipathy between him and the Brexiters of the ERG is the stuff of legends. They’d love him to go so he’ll be reluctant to give them that satisfaction.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page