Usually after a big government reshuffle, the happiest-looking people are the ministers, whether they’ve survived the axe or are celebrating a promotion. But at the end of this week, the most cheerful MPs appear to be the ones who left government, whether of their own volition or after being sacked by Boris Johnson. They’ve been spotted at the cricket and are happily announcing their holiday plans with their family on social media in a way that most politicians shy away from, for fear of appearing to have too much fun.
But who is really in the best situation: those in the government, or those now on the outside? In my column in today’s Guardian, I examine the emotional turmoil that many MPs on both sides are going through. It isn’t yet clear whether walking out was better than staying in.
One thing that is clear is that ministers and backbenchers see it as being in their interests to carry on working together to stop a no-deal Brexit. There will, I understand, be a formal launch of the ‘Gaukeward squad’ in the autumn, and the members of the group are working on how it will be structured. They already have some loose organisation, including members who have been acting as whips, but they realise that their rivals in the European Research Group have had more influence partly because they have a proper hierarchy.
Getting a formal structure together won’t be without its problems, though. Not all the members of this Squad are well-disposed to one another (this is politics, after all). Some think it is essential that Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Jo Johnson and Robert Buckland have decided to be ministers, because they can offer a moderating force in Cabinet meetings. Others are dismissive, saying they don’t really think those colleagues belong any more. It’s not just Rudd’s pivot to accepting that no deal must be on the table, but also what one Squad member described as ‘Nicky doing all that work with that Malthouse fellow’, a reference to Morgan backing Kit Malthouse’s compromise.
It’s not just the matter of signing up to Johnson’s government that divides this group, though. There is a split between those who want a second referendum, and those who currently think that this would be deeply divisive. Mistrust has been running high between MPs with these two different approaches, and it will be difficult for the Squad to have much clout if it can’t offer a coherent solution to the threat of a no-deal exit.
There’s also the matter of who ends up in charge, or at least acting as the group’s spokesperson. The ERG had Jacob Rees-Mogg as its chairman, and he attracted a great deal of attention in this role, as did Steve Baker and Mark Francois. The Gaukeward Squad has the man who it is named after, former Justice Secretary David Gauke, who is well-liked by colleagues, and ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond, who still needs to join the One Nation caucus, the larger ginger group from which all the Gaukeward types hail.
The MPs involved know that they need to give Johnson his honeymoon period, at least over the summer recess, otherwise they will risk looking like malcontents. But if they don’t return from the break with a proper group and a strong message, they’ll struggle to catch up in what promises to be a very tumultuous autumn.