When Theresa May delivered her statement in the dusk outside Downing Street on Wednesday night, she may have already known a storm was gathering.
After the five-hour cabinet meeting, the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab had told the chief whip he would resign. Raab retreated to his office in No 9 Downing Street as May told the cameras that “the choices before us were difficult”.
Raab had told the chief whip Julian Smith at the end of the meeting that he was minded to go. Ministers had shared a glass of wine after the stormy discussion. It was later into the night that he spoke directly to the prime minister.
Early on Thursday morning, Raab phoned May to confirm his decision and then tweeted his letter. The dam was truly broken after Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, also resigned. DExEU’s Suella Braverman followed Raab out the door just before 10.30, tailed by two parliamentary private secretaries and a Tory vice-chair.
Downing Street officials hinted that resignations had been priced in. “We’re having to confront some very difficult issues and she doesn’t shy away from that,” one said. Asked if a new Brexit secretary was planned at all, a No 10 official shrugged and said “suspect so, yes”.
May arrived in the House of Commons flanked by two cabinet ministers said to be teetering on the edge of their own departures, Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt.
Though her tone was forthright as she addressed MPs, May’s ministers clearly had jitters. At one point, the chancellor Philip Hammond turned in horror as he saw all of the reporters rush out of the press gallery above the chamber.
That scene also spooked Labour MP Mary Creagh, who tweeted that it seemed a “leadership coup” was imminent. In fact, journalists were heading to a scheduled briefing with the prime minister’s own spokesman.
May’s replies grew more terse as the statement dragged into its second hour. Labour MP Mike Gapes bluntly asked the prime minister if it was time for her to stand aside. “No,” she replied, to a half-hearted cheer.
Labour’s Chris Leslie asked Tory MPs to put up their hands if they supported the prime minister. Instead, Tory grandee Nicholas Soames flicked his fingers into a V in Leslie’s direction.
And then the rupture of her cabinet was followed by perhaps an even greater threat, not just to her deal but to her premiership. It began with a letter of no confidence from Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the European Research Group, and one of her most influential critics.
May was still on her feet in the marathon Commons session when Rees-Mogg gave his letter to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 |Committee, who keeps track of whether the threshold of 48 MPs has been reached in order to trigger a contest.
“When Jacob and Steve [Baker] go public, that’s a big deal,” one Eurosceptic MP said. “They have a lot of influence with people who have held back, on Jacob’s advice.”
Blinking at the mass of cameras in his neat double-breasted suit, Rees-Mogg seemed deeply affronted at the suggestion he was launching a coup. Everything was perfectly above board, he insisted.
He was sanguine about his chances of toppling the prime minister with his letter of no confidence. But allies said he would not have made his move without being confident of success.
Friends said Rees-Mogg had spent the night reading the details of the withdrawal agreement after the cabinet broke up and decided he was all-but-certain to submit his letter overnight. The announcement was made at a hastily-convened ERG meeting in a parliamentary committee room.
Afterwards, in a perfectly choreographed piece of theatre, cameras were alerted to where the backbencher would give his verdict, outside the St Stephen’s entrance of parliament – – the same site where May was declared to have won the Tory leadership two-and-a-half years ago.
Banging and cheers from Tory Eurosceptics in the room signalled that news was imminent, and as Rees-Mogg made his way out of the room, reporters formed a straight-jacket around him, tiptoeing backwards down the stone steps and almost colliding with busts of former prime ministers.
“We’re getting into a bit of a bottleneck, like the negotiations,” Rees-Mogg joked as he headed outside, surrounded by the media scrum.
It was not a tsunami but it was a steady drip after Rees-Mogg showed his hand. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister, revealed he had sent his letter in October. “It is too late. We need a new leader,” he said.
Leaving the ERG meeting, backbencher Simon Clarke said he had written to Brady – again. Clarke had withdrawn his first letter with great fanfare before the summer recess, but on Thursday re-submitted it.
The former Tory vice-chair Ben Bradley admitted that he too had sent a letter in October. “Since I resigned in July it’s often been frustrating that so many colleagues who share my view remain in government and keep quiet,” he said. “Honestly the only way we’re going to change it is if the people who disagree all speak up.”
Several sources said they believed 10 letters had been submitted that afternoon. “For a prime minister, what really matters is that MPs trust you and your word,” one Brexiter source said.
“That is why people are unhappy. They think things are hidden away in documents, or vague language is being used to cover up what is really going on. And they get found out.”
Yet other Tory colleagues were publicly angry at the displays of disloyalty. “It’s obscene, it’s pure ambition,” one said. MP Simon Hart called the scene “an embarrassment”.
Foreign office minister Alastair Burt, a keen remain supporter barely concealed his fury as he passed the room where the ERG meeting was held. “We are working our socks off and they are doing everything they can to detonate it,” he said.
It was not a day of complete disaster. Leadsom, a leading figure in Vote Leave, later confirmed that she would not quit. Her resignation as leader of the House of Commons would have plunged government preparations for the vote on the deal into further chaos.
Allies said she was still wrestling with her decision and had not had her fears assuaged. She hoped, friends said, that there were now still changes that could be made as the threat of a parliamentary defeat edged nearer.
Mordaunt’s position was less certain and the international development secretary went to Downing Street twice to press May to allow a free vote on the final deal, an idea even Brexiters said they believed was far-fetched.
Most mysterious was the absence of Michael Gove, the environment secretary. His allies were tight-lipped, though rumours swirled that he was mulling whether to accept the position of Brexit secretary – or to follow colleagues out of the door.
May called a rare press conference at Downing Street at 5pm, where instead of delivering anything new, doubled down on her determination to fight on.
There was a moment when a shockwave went round the room, as May opened with a reflection on the challenges and responsibilities of great public office. But it quickly evaporated when she moved on to the more familiar territory: defending her deal as the best on offer.
May, a cricket fan, was asked at what stage she would resign as captain of the team. She replied: “You might recall that one of my cricketing heroes was always Geoffrey Boycott and what do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? He stuck to it and he got the runs in the end.”
Afterwards, one Brexiter quipped that the prime minister was more like the knight in Monty Python, insisting she had “a flesh wound” when her limbs were missing.
Her critics are predicting that a leadership challenge will be confirmed within days. But the only man in the United Kingdom who knows just how close the prime minister is to the edge did not seem to be unduly concerned.
In the afternoon, a relaxed-looking Brady wandered through the courtyard of Portcullis House, which houses MPs’ offices, insisting that he had nothing momentous planned.