As she got up for possibly her last ever Prime Minister’s questions, Theresa May was wearing a funereal black trouser suit. Andrea Leadsom, who usually sits alongside her as Leader of the Commons, was mysteriously, ominously absent.
It was another 40 minutes before Leadsom finally arrived. When she sat down, she proceeded to embark on a terse argument with chief whip Julian Smith, sotto voce, while May carried on at the despatch box.
Leadsom had been meeting and phoning other members of the so-called ‘Pizza Club’ of Brexiteer cabinet ministers, just a few yards away in her spacious office behind the Speaker’s chair.
Along with Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and others, she had been unhappy ever since May got up the afternoon before to deliver her latest Brexit offer at the PWC office building in Charing Cross.
All of them felt ‘bounced’ by the PM’s big new statement that she was offering Labour a vote on a second EU referendum and on a possible temporary customs union. Leadsom, as Commons Leader, was upset at the timing and content of a bill she was meant to announce the following day.
Crucially, however, the ‘Pizza Club’ consultation broke up without any conclusion. There was no co-ordination, nothing that could be called a ‘plot’. Just a simmering, growing sense that the prime minister had not been straight with the public, or them.
Then, in the Commons, May announced that she was indeed going ahead and publishing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Friday, despite the vicious backlash against it and despite a hint that morning from Gove that she should pause and ‘reflect’.
To add insult to injury, May even contradicted his claim that the bill would materialise on Thursday.
Acutely aware of the political vultures circling over her head, she decided to press on with her big gamble. “In time, another Prime Minister will be standing at this despatch box, but while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House about the facts,” she said.
If Brexit was to be delivered, it was impossible without first giving MPs a vote on customs and a second referendum. “We can pretend otherwise and carry on arguing and getting nowhere, but in the end our job in this House is to take decisions, not to duck them.”
Behind her, a sea of empty green benches told their own story, as Tory MPs voted with their feet and stayed away from the statement. Up high in the far corner of the backbenches, Boris Johnson was a brooding, silent presence. Within minutes, he too was gone.
Arch Brexiteer Mark Francois had pointedly walked out within seconds of May starting her statement. He along with four other MPs had acted in concert to complain about the treatment of former military personnel.
At least one former Cabinet minister abhored the spectacle: “It felt like bullying to me. But she can’t sack people now, can’t reshuffle, she’s got zero authority.”
As May ploughed on, the haphazard Cabinet mutiny was getting underway. Over in the Cabinet Office’s reading room, ministers had been allowed to see the draft of the toxic legislation that was burning a hole through Tory unity and May’s personal authority.
And one clause above all, Article 36, was what caused jaws to drop: “This House agrees there should be another referendum before the withdrawal agreement is ratified...A minister of the Crown must make arrangements for another referendum to be held...”
The wording was whizzed around on WhatsApp and the anger grew. Scottish secretary David Mundell was the first to demand a meeting with May to get the clause axed.
Yet he hadn’t planned his move in conjunction with anyone else, and was more motivated by a desire to help the 13 Tory Scots MPs defend themselves from the SNP’s bid to use a referendum as a precursor to independence.
Penny Mordaunt had come to a similar conclusion and asked May for a meeting. Sajid Javid, after chatting to MPs inside and outside the ‘Pizza’ group, had felt the referendum clause was simply not what the Cabinet had signed up to. Jeremy Hunt had felt the same. Gove’s and Truss’s big fear was the bill risked heavy defeat unless it was pulled.
“Everyone thought they had agreed something but after the PM’s speech there were big question marks. It wasn’t what was agreed. A second referendum was not what we agreed,” one cabinet source said.
Perhaps because each has their own leadership ambitions, perhaps because they were in different locations around Whitehall and Westminster, there was still no coordinated move to see May en masse.
However, ministers lower down the foodchain were getting their act together. One group met to tell the chief whip that they would resign as one next Monday once the European election results were in, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party landslide was confirmed.
Some polls suggest the Conservatives could go down to single figures in their share of the vote, an historic nadir for a national election.
Outside the Commons chamber, the PM’s spokesman was taking a deadpan approach to the looming defeat. “We expect a very challenging night when the results come through,” he said. “The prime minister is focused on the task at hand.”
In a perfect illustration of the fact that Parliament is currently becalmed by Brexit, the Commons rose early at just 4.30pm.
But that didn’t mean Tory MPs were unoccupied. Up on the thickly carpeted committee corridor, the backbench 1922 Committee executive was trying and failing to agree on the next steps for May’s future.
Outside Committee Room 14, Francois - the vice chair of the Brexiteer’s backbench European Research Group (ERG) - was in jovial mood. “If I were a betting man I would bet £50 for Help For Heroes that the second reading of the WAB [Withdrawal Agreement Bill] will never ever happen and I invite another colleague, whoever it may be, to take my bet.” No one did.
Yet over in Downing Street, May was digging in. She had had enough of being pushed around, one ally said. She had meant every word of her Common statement about her ‘duty’ to try and deliver Brexit one last time.
So the word went out from the bunker: she would not be meeting Mundell, Mordaunt or Javid that day. She might meet foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday. Most importantly of all, she would definitely be publishing her bill on Friday.
Chief whip Julian Smith was despatched to tell the defiant news to the 1922. In one particularly farcical scene, he popped into the loo opposite the Committee room, with a scrum of journalists waiting for him to emerge.
In the end, he spent exactly two minutes in the 1922 executive meeting. She was not quitting that night and was instead intending on Thursday to vote in the European elections and focus on getting the vote out.
She would meet 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady on Friday, after the election, and discuss then her timetable for departure from No.10. But there was a kicker: she would still publish her bill even before meeting Brady.
A throng of Tory MPs - including former Chancellor Norman Lamont, a veteran of John Major’s European woes - then gathered for the full meeting of the committee at 6pm.
One senior MP who had been tipped off about the chief whip’s message confided: “We’ve got to change the rules tonight to get her out. Who does she think she is? Imelda Marcos?”
Iain Duncan Smith, no stranger to leadership coup attempts, summoned up the domestic scene in No.10, telling ITV News: “The sofa is up against the door, she’s not leaving.” Another former minister was disappointed: “I thought I was coming to a lynching.”
One ex-minister pointed at John Redwood and Bill Cash and complained: “These guys will never be happy. They did it before [removing a prime minister], they’ve done it again.”
The full meeting only lasted a few minutes, during which Brady confirmed May would meet him on Friday. Nadine Dorries, Crispin Blunt and Cash all complained at the lack of urgency.
The tense mood was summed up when Brexiteer Michael Fabricant tried to make a joke that the executive of the 1922 Committee should itself face a vote of no confidence. Brady, normally a picture of relaxed bonhomie, eyed him with a steely gaze. “Is that a serious proposition?”
And in a sign of how fractious the different factions of the party have become, Remainer Sir Nicholas Soames prompted shouts as he inadvertently brushed past Brexiteer Peter Bone as he left the meeting.
Afterwards, another ERG chief, Steve Baker, tried to heal the wounds: “People are rather impatient. But equally most colleagues appreciate this is a very difficult time for people on the executive. This is after all the eve of poll in a national election.”
One Brexiteer said “it’s fucking appalling” that the party’s men in grey suits had failed to seize the initiative. Many MPs felt that Wednesday was the last day to act because they knew the TV broadcasters are legally banned on Thursday’s election day from reporting party politics.
In a move worthy of House of Cards, it later turned out that the 1922 grandees had voted in a secret ballot on whether to change their rules to spark a fresh vote of confidence in May.
Their envelopes won’t be opened until possibly Friday, May’s date with destiny - and with Brady. If she refuses to commit to quitting by June 10 at the latest, the secret vote will be revealed and many expect it to change the rules. Still, the timing remains bizarre. Under EU rules, the UK’s results won’t be known until Sunday night when the rest of Europe finishes voting.
One MP after the 1922 meeting complained that Leadsom, Gove, Hunt, Javid and Matt Hancock would all harm their leadership chances unless they acted decisively.
“It doesn’t reflect well on any of those who want to take on a leadership role, it plays into the hands of the Raabs and the Johnsons of this world, or the most-people-haven’t-heard-ofs-or-maybe-talented-in-15-years.”
Little did that MP know that Leadsom had indeed made up her mind. She was due on Thursday to deliver a ‘business statement’ setting out the timing of the controversial bill whose contents she disagreed with.
Leadsom wrote her resignation letter and phoned May at 7pm. The call was courteous, with May thanking her for her work as Commons leader on the bullying and harassment inquiry at Westminster.
The PM insisted she would still go ahead with her plans. May knew that this was the latest existential threat to her premiership. After panicked calls by the whips, there was a relief that others would not follow. Yet.
Within half an hour, Leadsom tweeted her resignation letter. Fittingly, it was written with a turquoise gel pen, the exact same colour branding of Farage’s Brexit Party. No.10’s reply was a study in defiance. “The prime minister remains focused on delivering the Brexit people voted for.”
No.10 insists that the Cabinet had indeed agreed by consensus to sign up to May’s plan and deny that anyone was misled or the bill misrepresented.
Senior government sources admitted that she had been braced for a backlash over the pivot to Labour, but felt she had no alternative. “We knew it would be grim, but what other choice did we have?”
Friends of the PM said that she had signed up to the EU’s extension to October 31 on the condition that she would not reopen the deal.
The renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement - a key demand of the DUP and many in her party - was therefore “just not an option for her”. But tellingly, they added: “Another leader could try it...”
However, one government source was scathing about May’s hopes of clinging on to power. “The cult of personality means you lose every purpose. Prime ministers always think it’s about their legacy, but she can fucking forget it. It’s too late.”
With the leadership jockeying already well underway, one senior Brexiteer was withering about Leadsom’s chances. “You’ll find her candidacy is met with guffaws. Hell, I’ve got more chance than she has.”
Any claims to be the ‘first mover’ in a series of resignations prompted the observation that Johnson and Raab had moved first months ago in quitting the Cabinet.
Leadsom’s resignation may mean that life has come full circle for May. It was her decision to pull out of the leadership race in 2016, following her gaffe about being ‘a mother’, that handed May the job of PM on a plate, unopposed. The irony of triggering the coda to a failed three-year premiership was not lost on her supporters.
Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson, himself sacked last month, was grinning from ear to ear as he bumped into fellow MPs in the Commons colonnade between the chamber and Portcullis House. “It’s not going to get any better for her is it?” he laughed.
The PM’s funereal black may have proved apt after all. One minister confided: “The withdrawal bill is dead. And so is she.”
(Infographic supplied by Statista)