Today’s Cabinet meeting was bound to be an unhappy affair after four cabinet ministers broke a three-line whip and abstained on a government motion. Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell broke collective responsibility in order to abstain rather than vote against a motion ruling out a no deal Brexit. These ministers claim they thought it was okay to abstain – with Theresa May’s PPS Andrew Bowie allegedly telling ministers they would not be fired as a result.
At this afternoon’s political Cabinet, Theresa May made her displeasure known (and criticised the level of press leaks from these meetings). However, the minister who made the greatest impression on his colleagues was the Chief Whip. Julian Smith told those assembled there was no excuse – no-one should be breaking collective responsibility. Smith praised Sarah Newton for doing the honourable thing in resigning as a junior minister so she could vote against. The Chief Whip added that Conservative MPs could not understand why Cabinet Ministers were getting special treatment on the issue – compared to those on the lower ranks of government. Things were so heated that when Greg Clark attempted to explain his actions by saying he was ‘confused’, Smith walked out of the meeting. Sources close to Clark say his point was that the whipping was ‘confused’.
Tonight the government hopes to restore discipline. MPs and ministers are under strict instructions to vote against all the amendments to the Article 50 extension motion. If none are successful, it is a free vote on the government motion. However, if any of the amendments are added, Conservative MPs are instructed to vote against. There are no grey areas tonight so expect an important test in whether Tory party discipline still exists.