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Cabinet coup or not, the government is on the brink of collapse over Brexit

24 March 2019

9:12 AM

24 March 2019

9:12 AM

The correct reports in Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday this morning that some ministers (not all) want Theresa May to go now, and make way for a caretaker – either David Lidington or Michael Gove – tells me NOT she will definitely go within a few days (though she may) but that the government is perilously close to collapse.

Because what it shows is the underlying split in the cabinet between those ministers – Gauke, Clark, Rudd, Mundell – who want to stop a no-deal Brexit at any cost, and those who want to prevent either a referendum or a “soft” Brexit “in name only” – Leadsom, Mordaunt, Fox, Grayling – has become irreconcilable.

For a brief moment at the end of last week ministers on the more Remain side in particular thought replacing May would paper over this yawning gap on the most important decision this country has faced since we joined the EU in 1973 – but it can’t and won’t.

In fact both of the contenders to replace her, Lidington and Gove, would hasten ministerial resignations, in that both would be as likely as May – in fact probably more likely – to steer the UK to a Brexit in which the UK would be seen by many Tories to be a “vassal” or subservient state, or even towards a people’s vote.

Ministers not in the Brexit ultra or Remain ultra camps are explicit with me that May’s imminent departure would solve nothing. One said: “we need to play the ball not the man”.

Another said: “no credible route from A to B” [ie from Cabinet unhappiness with her to finding a replacement who would unite rather than divide].

A third added: “I don’t believe it [May’s resignation] will happen and I would not be part of it. But everyone is turning over remote possibilities to try and get out of jail”. And there is the rub, the real importance of what is happening.

As I wrote last night, the coming few days will see MPs – not the government – forced to choose between a no-deal Brexit on April 12 and an alternative route they may select via the indicative votes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Prime Minister – whether May or Lidington or Gove – would in turn have to decide whether to negotiate MPs’ preferred Brexit outcome with Brussels and the EU 27’s leaders. If MPs were to coalesce around the two most likely options, either a Brexit in name only or a referendum, that would split both the cabinet and the Tory party, right down the middle.

One minister said to me: “let’s be clear, there will be some of my colleagues who will argue parliament should be dissolved and we should take our chances in a general election rather than have a referendum or customs-union Brexit [a soft Brexit]”.

This is why there is much talk of backbench MPs not just taking over the Brexit decision but the whole machinery of government – by appointing someone trusted by all sides (as yet unidentified) from the backbenches as a Brexit caretaker PM in charge of a temporary government of national unity.

Will this revolt of the Commons against the PM and entire executive happen?

The mechanics of such a fully fledged coup are tricky. But the looming decision on whether to leave the EU on 12 April is testing this minority government to breaking point. The unhappiness with May is a proxy for the failure of the entire government to solve the most important and intractable problem of modern politics – a Brexit that does not destroy the institution that gave us the EU referendum, the Tory Party.

If May falls, the whole government may well too.

PS. The cabinet coup against Theresa May is apparently over before it even started. Authoritative sources close to Michael Gove tell me he does not believe there should be a caretaker prime minister – so it won’t be him. And David Lidington has said on the record that he does not want to be PM…

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