Who is in the most turmoil in the Tory party? Is it the moderate Tory MPs who decided to leave government this week in protest at Boris Johnson’s policies; or their colleagues who thought it better to accept a ministerial job? Talking privately to both groups, it’s clear that neither side really knows who made the right decision.
“I’m so up and down at the moment,” says one former minister. “I’m not sure if I’ve done the right thing. But I’ve done something and I suppose I had better live with it.” Others are celebrating publicly by going to the cricket, while another has been joking that they now have the “freedom to spend all weekend having sex” – though it’s not clear whether this would have been prohibited in a Johnson government.
On the one hand, there are ex-ministers relieved that they won’t have to pretend to support a man they think is hell-bent on a no-deal Brexit. On the other, there are men and women sitting around the cabinet table who think they might have a better chance of stopping bad policies from the inside.
Both camps are wondering whether they’ve done the right thing. If you’ve left government, you’ll suddenly find that interviewers aren’t desperate to hear from you any more. You go from running a department and telling other ministers they can’t have the funding pot they’ve been begging for to running a small Commons office with a researcher whose name you can’t remember, and trying to micromanage your children’s pocket money.
If you’re sitting in a department, you’ll be fretting that you’ve dipped your hands in the blood of a government that might take Britain out of the European Union without a deal, despite your own personal opposition. Centrist special advisers are also not particularly looking forward to having to report directly to Dominic Cummings, the mastermind of the 2016 Vote Leave victory and now de facto chief of staff to Johnson. Cummings is very different in person to the mythical creature his enemies have painted him: most close colleagues respect him as being both serious and kind. But they also accept that it’s not worth getting on the wrong side of him.
Both ministers and their advisers are anxious that Johnson has set the bar for a Brexit deal impossibly high, demanding that European negotiators make changes to the withdrawal agreement they have repeatedly ruled out. It could be that, rather than having any real desire to reach a deal, the prime minister has already decided he wants to leave without one.
But the reason moderate types have decided that being inside government is better than being outside is that they still hope there is a chance of a deal. “I do think that, while Boris might be setting the bar impossibly high, there is also a sense that the bar was never set high enough by Theresa May,” argues one cabinet minister. “There was a mood around the cabinet table this week that we as a government hadn’t done well enough by the country over the past three years, and that the voters deserved better.”
Johnson has made clear to the moderate ministers that, if he does strike a deal, he will expect them to go forth and sell it to their faction within the Conservative party. On this, they are quite optimistic, pointing to Oliver Letwin telling the Commons on Thursday: “I personally will certainly vote for any arrangement he makes for an orderly exit from the EU.” They see an appetite from the anti-no deal camp for any deal at all, which will make trying to sell even a poor deal much easier. They also haven’t all been ostracised from their one-nation caucus of MPs just for being in government. In fact, the remainer-ish ministers say they need the support of all their colleagues on the outside, as there just aren’t enough of them to be able to do all the work.
But there is bad blood between individuals: Amber Rudd has been chucked out of one of the main WhatsApp groups for her pivot to supporting the option of no deal in order to remain in government. Johnson also kept Rudd waiting for quite some time before confirming that she was staying in the Department for Work and Pensions, causing some of those colleagues to joke that her change of heart hadn’t even worked.
Some are still wondering whether they’ll stay in the Tory party at all. This week Margot James – who resigned in the last days of the May government to vote for the latest attempt to stop the prime minister suspending parliament to force no deal through – told the Guardian she couldn’t rule out leaving the Conservatives altogether after Johnson’s “massive shift to the right”. There is talk of a split even among those in government, though following the implosion of the nascent centrist Independent Group for Change party that formed this year, it’s not clear where they would go.
There is also confusion over whether this group of moderates will have a leader. It has been branded “the Gaukward squad”, mainly because the pun on David Gauke’s name sounds so good, but ex-chancellor Philip Hammond is also clearly keen to appear a leading figure.
Plots in all parties often fail if there is tension over who is running the show, and the anti-no-deal gang face stiff competition for Johnson’s attention from the equally grumpy European Research Group. They have the summer to get over their qualms about where they’ve all ended up and get organised. Otherwise all of them will have to find hobbies considerably more consuming than going to the cricket and the odd dirty weekend.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and presenter of Radio 4’s Week in Westminster