As Cabinet ministers gathered in the Great Hall at Chequers on Friday morning, sipping coffee or fresh orange juice, there were one or two nervous jokes about political assassinations.
Gazing down on the nation’s leaders from high above the ornate fireplace was a portrait of the children of Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649.
That the Prime Minister meant business was clear from the moment they’d arrived and handed over their mobile phones as a precaution against leaks.
And any minister who might have been contemplating a resignation if the marathon Brexit summit did not go their way was given a less than subtle hint as to the consequences of life outside the privileged world of Cabinet.
One wag in the PM’s team announced loudly that there was a stash of business cards available for Aston’s, the local mini cab firm for ‘ministers who couldn’t make the right decisions for the country’ and would need to make their own way back to London.
A jest or not, they were left in no doubt that the moment they resigned they would no longer have access to the chauffeur driven cars that had swept them down the long cobbled Victory drive, flanked by beech trees that were a gift from Sir Winston Churchill, to the 16th century Buckinghamshire mansion.
Some 40 minutes later, the Cabinet were ushered into the wood-panelled Hawtrey Room, where Churchill recorded some of his stirring wartime broadcasts. Then the Prime Minister swept in wearing a purple dress trimmed in green. ‘The colour of the suffragettes,’ observed one minister who thought it ‘very significant’ in the 100th anniversary of the first women securing the vote. The topic for discussion was a 120-page document on the Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA) which most had received only the afternoon before. Questions went back and forth rapidly.
Someone asked for clarification of some of the figures and Chancellor Philip Hammond answered. Ten minutes later he was still talking, at which point he was cut off by the PM who chided that it wasn’t the time for speeches.
As the temperature steadily rose – there is no air conditioning at Chequers, the weekend retreat of every prime minister since the end of the First World War – most people took off their jackets.
Even Britain’s bearded ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow, in his trademark three piece suit, stripped down to his waistcoat.
Then Mrs May asked Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, to speak.
‘Oh God,’ said Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary. Quick as a flash, the PM retorted: ‘He’ll like that as an introduction.’ Smith’s assessment was crucial to May’s subsequent victory, because he bluntly warned that without the FCA compromise the Government would certainly lose a Commons vote on July 16 and be forced to stay in the Customs Union. His remarks had a sobering effect. They broke for a buffet lunch, on the sun-drenched patio, of barbecue chicken thighs with a selection of salads made using produce from the Chequers estate. For dessert there were scones and cream and sticky tea loaf.
Boris Johnson, a Cabinet heavyweight in more ways than one, was seen prodding the loaf with a fork but resisted taking a bite.
At 2pm, they reassembled in the Grand Parlour as the thermometer on the wall hit 27.3C. Windows were thrown open and the Chequers team ferried in chilled Diet Coke and elderflower cordial.
For those who needed more of a sugar rush, a bag of Haribo sweets also went round, with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt photographed diving in, although nothing passed his lips apparently. ‘He’s thinking about his public image all the time,’ observed one source drily.
The Prime Minister then spoke for six minutes looking down only occasionally at her notes.
‘There was a touch of Elizabeth I about her. Haughty, almost regal, she was confident and assured,’ one minister said admiringly.
David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister and de facto deputy PM, went next. A former Europe minister, arch Remainer, and fully paid-up cheerleader for May, he banged the drum for the FCA. No surprise there.
All eyes, however, were on David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, whom May then called to speak. It was a pivotal moment. Davis had little to do with the FCA, which was drawn up by civil servants who now appear to be leading the negotiations. He made clear he disagreed with the plan and warned the EU would come back for ‘even more concessions’. But it was clear that he would accept the majority view.
One senior source said: ‘He is a realist who knows we are leaving the EU albeit not exactly on the terms he wanted, and he also relishes his Cabinet role.’ Boris Johnson appeared surprised to be called next. In a six-minute ‘rant’ or ‘whinge’, depending who you spoke to, he despaired that the customs plan had ‘emerged zombie-like from the coffin’.
The most telling intervention came just after 3pm from Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary. Stressing that the FCA was not his preferred option and arguing they must make more plans for ‘no deal’, he said: ‘I feel we should all back the PM and support her in her efforts to make this work.’
The words had the desired effect. ‘It changed everything,’ said another source. There was a rumble of supportive noises and suddenly the little bubble of rebellion had burst – although critics were determined to have their say. Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom was ‘vehemently’ against the policy but ended by saying: ‘I will support you, Prime Minister.’
Another notable contribution came from Penny Mordaunt, the International Aid Secretary, who made clear her own misgivings, while Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary and close ally of backbench Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith, also trashed the plan.
After all 29 ministers had spoken, with seven making clear their opposition, the PM addressed them again saying there was a majority for the policy and demanding a return to Cabinet collective responsibility.
‘We have seen what happens when a team is united and gets behind their leader,’ she said – a clear reference to the England footballers’ World Cup success.
With the discussions over, they toasted a rare outbreak of Cabinet unity with Pol Roger champagne, the favourite of Churchill. In a jocular speech Boris Johnson proposed a toast to the Prime Minister, who interrupted to say: ‘If only people could see how united we are now.’ But can it last?