The first wobble came on Saturday. After weeks of refusing to budge on plans to hold a Commons vote on her Brexit deal, Theresa May let slip to staff that maybe, just maybe, there could be movement.
On Sunday, the clamour from key cabinet ministers for a postponement grew louder. When she rang Irish PM Leo Varadkar and the EU’s Donald Tusk, May still insisted she was pressing on with the vote planned for Tuesday. But they were told it would be easier to sell the deal to her MPs if she had some extra assurances on the vexed issue of Northern Ireland. Once more, the idea of Britain pleading for more time became palpable.
And yet even if Brussels smelled doubt and could feel the timetable slipping, some around her felt that May still wanted to stick to Tuesday. As he was briefed on how to handle the breakfast media on Monday morning, Michael Gove was certainly convinced the famously stubborn PM was not for turning. In a pool clip for TV, he said not once but three times that the vote would go ahead as planned.
Within minutes of Gove’s broadcast round ending, cabinet were told to expect an emergency conference call. The ministers who had been pushing for a delay knew at that point they had won. When the call was made, at 11.30am, there was no dissent.
Ostensibly, the cabinet was being ‘consulted’ but in fact Chief Whip Julian Smith and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson were among eight ministers who had driven the postponement. The PM had been left with little choice. Unsurprisingly, the news was leaked within seconds.
When May got up in the Commons to confirm the news, there was a mix of derision and laughter from Opposition benches – and stony silence from the Tory benches behind her. “On one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern…” she admitted.
The House was packed tighter than a Budget Day, with cabinet ministers David Gauke, Chris Grayling, Damian Hinds, Jeremy Wright, Karen Bradley forced to stand. Gove arrived late, his earlier broadcast humiliation still ringing in his ears.