Throughout yet another neuralgic day of Brexit debate at Westminster, the deep divisions in the Conservative party were again on excruciating display.
Collective responsibility has long been suspended, as shifting groups of ministers and backbenchers pursue their own favoured Brexit outcome. But the chaotic votes of Wednesday night smacked of a government falling apart.
First, six cabinet ministers most notable for their leadership ambitions – Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Alun Cairns, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid – supported the Malthouse compromise, a policy that would involve junking the deal their own government had spent two years negotiating.
And then a separate group of cabinet ministers, David Mundell, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, abstained in the face of a three-line whip, rather than vote against the amended motion taking no deal off the table.
Sources close to the group later claimed that when ministers gathered for an informal cabinet meeting shortly before the votes, neither the chief whip, Julian Smith, nor Theresa May herself were aware of the risk of a defeat.
The European Research Group’s Jacob Rees-Mogg later called for the abstainers to resign or be sacked. “Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point,” he said.
Several more junior ministers opted to vote for the motion, in defiance of the whips. One, Sarah Newton, a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, immediately resigned.
A grim-faced Smith was spotted shortly afterwards on the corridor next to the whips’ office, consulting with May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.