Amazing what a bit of discipline can do. No sooner has Boris Johnson warned that anyone who wants to serve in his Cabinet must accept that leaving the EU without a deal is retained as an option, than the work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd is telling TalkRadio: ‘Both candidates have said that no deal is part of the armoury going forward and I have accepted that’.
This is remarkable because four months ago Rudd was one of three Cabinet ministers who helped block a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. She, along with David Gauke and Greg Clark, abstained on an amendment to block a no-deal departure is all circumstances. The amendment was carried by 43, leading May to seek an extension to Article 50. Neither Rudd, Gauke, Clark or the several junior ministers who also abstained, were sacked – in spite of this being a whipped vote.
It would be easy to attack Rudd as a lily-livered hypocrite – she voted down no deal when she knew she could get away with it and still keep her job. Now that the almost certain next Prime Minister is warning all ministers they will have to accept the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, suddenly she has fallen to her knees, grovelling for her job.
Then again, we could be charitable and instead conclude that Rudd has genuinely accepted what was clear to many people from the outset of the Brexit negotiations: the Britain was never going to get an acceptable deal from the EU unless it made it absolutely clear that we were prepared to walk away.
There was a time – at her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 – when Theresa May herself seemed to recognise that. But over the ensuing months, and especially after she lost her majority in the general election that June, she dropped her talk of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The consequences were inevitable – Michel Barnier and his negotiators saw that the government was desperate for a deal at all costs and acted accordingly.
It has become common wisdom among ardent Remainers in recent weeks that the new Prime Minister will be doomed to very rapid failure – the EU will refuse to reopen negotiations and Parliament will use every wheeze it can in order to prevent a no deal. Yet with Boris seemingly heading inexorably for Number 10, resistance is crumbling. With Rudd deciding that she is not going to make a stand against Boris’s strategy, how many more ministers will come to the conclusion that, after all, maybe they shouldn’t be trying to block a no-deal Brexit?
As for the threat to bring the government down in a vote of no confidence, forget it. I am sure that Ken Clarke will relish going out with a bang, but you can bet your boots that other MPs, like Rudd, will come to the conclusion that, after all, they would rather keep their careers. And if they want to do that, their only option is to see off the Brexit party by supporting Britain’s departure from the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal. Once again, a great Tory rebellion threatens to fizzle to nothing.