Michael Gove's failed Brexit coup

Here's the story behind the latest Government Brexit row (and please accept my sincere regrets for the profound sense of deja vu you are doubtless now feeling).

It all started at Cabinet on Tuesday, when Michael Gove ambushed the PM by suggesting that the Cabinet receive weekly updates on how much all departments are spending on preparing for Brexit, and where the money is going.

According to my sources, this looked like an attempted coup by the Brexiteering ultras, because the likes of Chris Grayling weighed in behind the Environment Secretary.

Such weekly Brexit-progress discussions would be - in Gove's view - a way to provide reassurance to all ministers, and especially those with a stronger ideological attachment to leaving the EU, that the process of Brexiting is being managed properly and with all eventualities covered.

Of particular importance to the Goves and Johnsons, of course, is that proper preparation is being made for a no-deal Brexit, such that exiting the EU without a trade deal is not perceived as prohibitively scary.

"It looked to us like Gove wanting to take back control," quipped one minister.

What is particularly piquant is that the Brexit Secretary David Davis - who is not exactly a chum of Johnson and Gove - wasn't at the meeting.

Mr Gove suggested a weekly Cabinet update on Brexit. Credit: PA

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since Remainers are somewhat in the ascendant in Cabinet, the opposing voices were more numerous.

As for the PM, she didn't explicitly reject Gove's suggestion. But in her idiosyncratic way of putting up a roadblock by moving the conversation on, everyone in the room concluded Gove had been put back in his box.

"Think about what it would do to our ability to govern if we had such weekly Brexit updates," said one minister. "We'd never get anything else done".

What I am less clear about is whether it was a reaction to Gove's failed putsch that the Chancellor then decided to write in The Times that there's no point in spending big money now on a no-deal scenario.

And it's not only me who can't quite fathom the Chancellor's motives. I am reliably told that the Prime Minister was this morning utterly bemused by what Philip Hammond is up to.

Apart from anything else, it does not look to me as if the PM is ready to start building new customs houses on the South Coast, as a contingency against a possible hard no-deal Brexit (to digress for a moment, and for the benefit of aficionados of Brexit complexities, Eurotunnel is apparently warning that there's nowhere obvious to put these customs houses in any case).

So in that sense Hammond is in the ascendant - and given the deep mistrust with which he is held by so many of his parliamentary colleagues, it is slightly odd perhaps that he wanted to make his ascendancy more conspicuous.

His Times swagger is why the PM presumably felt she had no option but to make it look as though she was slapping him down, when at PMQs she said the Government would spend whatever it takes to deliver any kind of Brexit (though of course this was that political classic, an expedient though illusory slap down - because she's still in essence following the Hammond route map).

Philip Hammond spoke about the possibility of 'no deal' to The Times. Credit: PA

If after reading about those Byzantine shenanigans you are still with me (gosh, you are brave), I have a little more of this stuff to unload on you.

First is that next week's EU council is highly unlikely to deliver either a nod that we'll get that controversial two-year Brexit transition period, or that we can now start trade negotiations.

The reason is simply that the EU's two most powerful nations, Germany and France, are for different reasons in no rush to move talks on to the next phases.

Second is that make or break time will therefore be the December summit. And as I have bored you rigid about before, that's when we'll have a fairer idea whether it's deal or no deal.

And if it looks like no deal, that's when the Chancellor will feel obliged to open his cheque book and start paying for the substantial additional ports infrastructure we would urgently need.