It was called The Quad. The executive committee of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander that ran the coalition government between 2010 and 2015.
Three years, and a lifetime later, a new and powerful quartet is emerging. And the fate of Brexit, the May government and the nation itself now rests on their capacity to perform in perfect harmony.
‘It’s basically Michael [Gove], Saj [Javid], Dom [Raab] and Matt [Hancock]’ a government insider tells me. ‘They’re not holding meetings with minutes or civil servants, or anything like that. But they’re working closely together now. They’re the fulcrum of the Cabinet.’
Three years, and a lifetime later, a new and powerful quartet is emerging
This new alliance is built in part on existing relationships. Gove and Hancock served together in the Department of Education. Javid and Hancock are both former members of the George Osborne salon.
Raab and Javid were part of the transformative 2010 Tory intake, and enjoyed the mutual benefit and curse of swiftly being labelled future Prime Ministers.
But of far greater significance to all four men than historic empathy is contemporary political exigency. Each of them has independently – and then collectively – come to the view that we are reaching the defining moment of the May administration.
And only a unity of effort and purpose can see their party and country safely beyond it.
‘They come from different wings of the party,’ an ally of one of them informs me, ‘and even more crucially, from different sides of the Brexit debate. Saj and Matt opposed, but Dominic and Michael strongly supported. But they all feel what’s required now is some hard-headed pragmatism. We’ve got to find a way of trying to get Brexit over the line.’
The fate of Brexit, the May government and the nation itself now rests on their capacity to perform in perfect harmony.
Asecond Cabinet insider agrees. ‘The thing that unites them is a realisation that we need a pragmatic approach to Brexit now. We need to get through the next few months and to do that we’re going to need to get some form of deal if we can.’
Up until now, the discussions between these veterans of the post-Chequers battlefield have been largely informal. ‘There have been a series of drinks to identify areas of common ground,’ a friend of one of them explained. But despite this lack of a rigid organisational structure, like one of those Second World War films where the crack commando squad is assembled for the daring assault behind enemy lines, each member brings a unique discipline to the team.
Gove is in charge of planning. Described to me by one MP this week as ‘the unofficial deputy prime minister’ he is the main link-man with Downing Street, and the person who tries to keep No10’s strategy and that of the rest of the Cabinet aligned. As one Downing Street official put it: ‘Michael is key to our Brexit plans now. He’s in here on an almost daily basis helping co-ordinate our approach.’
Dominic Raab is the bomb-disposal expert, tasked with the delicate and dangerous job of preventing the Brexit negotiations detonating in the Government’s face. It was Raab who skilfully – if somewhat sweatily – defused the growing crisis over the Government’s no-deal contingency planning. And it’s Raab’s impeccable Leave credentials that are being used to reassure nervous Tory back-benchers that the on-going negotiations will not see any additional Brexit backsliding.
Matt Hancock is in charge of communications, primarily with those Tory modernisers who are concerned May is allowing their party to slip into the hands of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG). It was Hancock who last week joined forces with Sajid Javid to put Bank of England Governor Mark Carney on the spot over claims Brexit would lead to a catastrophic slump in house prices.
Is Boris buying off his biggest rival?
Boris Johnson’s belated plea to his colleagues to concentrate on ‘chucking Chequers, not Theresa May’ has raised eyebrows within the Cabinet.
‘He’s already been trying to cut deals with people,’ a Minister confides. ‘He’s been putting out feelers to Sajid Javid offering him the Treasury.’
Another colleague detects an even darker strategy. ‘We’ve had burkas and suicide bombers. And his closest rival is the most high-profile Muslim in the Conservative Party.’ Friends of the former Foreign Secretary angrily refute the suggestion.
‘Dumping Chequers is the only thing he’s interested in,’ one says. ‘People have got hung up on a couple of comments. On burkas he was actually defending the right of people to choose.
‘And no one complained when David Cameron said Brexit would put a bomb under the UK economy. Boris and Sajid get on very well.’ For now.
‘Matt’s job is to run the Remainers for Brexit campaign inside the Tory party,’ one MP explained ‘and to reassure them that this doesn’t mark the end of the party’s modernisation efforts.’
The final member of the team, Sajid Javid, is the sniper. Currently identified by the bookies as the second favourite in the Tory leadership stakes, he retains the highest level of political capital, and therefore represents the greatest threat to Chequers’ prospective opponents – in particular the large, lumbering, high-value target that is Boris Johnson.
Javid is also building a reputation as a politician who makes measured, but high-impact interventions. ‘He learnt that from George,’ a friend notes.
‘He can go quiet for a time but then when he appears he makes it count.’ He will have to. As will the rest of his unit. The view in Westminster is that the past seven days has been a mini car-crash for Mrs May’s enemies.
Long-standing splits within the ERG burst into the open with contradictory messages about a leadership challenge.
Johnson was urged to tone-down his rhetoric after his explosive – literally – comparison of May’s Brexit strategy with that of a suicide bomber in last week’s Mail on Sunday. And the strategy itself was boosted by comments from Michael Barnier indicating a deal could now be within reach. My understanding is that is correct. ‘We will get a deal,’ a senior Cabinet minister told me. But, as he presciently added, ‘the question is what happens next’.
One thing that will certainly happen is the anti-Chequers brigade will mount one final, desperate charge. Downing Street believes this will involve identifying some relatively minor element of the agreement, and attempting to recast it as a fresh and monumental betrayal. At which point, the response of Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab will be crucial.
If their tactical acumen remains sound, their nerve holds steady, they can keep channels of communication open and their aim stays true, the Prime Minister could still survive her mission impossible. But if any one of them falters – either by accident or design – she is doomed.
Quotes of the week
‘The last time Russian military claimed to be on holiday was when they invaded Ukraine in 2014.’
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt dismisses claims by two men suspected of the novichok attack in Salisbury that they were simply tourists.
‘Top QC ditches curvy blond.’
Judicial blog Legal Cheek’s headline on the news that lawyer Marina Wheeler is divorcing Boris Johnson.
‘The gig economy is nothing new. It is simply a reincarnation of an ancient evil.’
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby sparks controversy by telling the TUC that workers are still being oppressed.
‘Have you guys had much Chinese food?’
Prince William drops a clanger by asking pupils about their meal… at a Japanese cultural centre.
‘Our starting team had an average age of 25. If we take them any younger we’ll be waiting outside Mothercare.’
Gareth Southgate jokes about his youthful England football side.
‘What next? Call Auschwitz a resort?’
Blogger Anna Polyakova reacts after a university society described Soviet gulags as ‘compassionate’.
‘Here’s a real student starter pack – beans, chicken nuggets, pizza and frozen avocado if you’re feeling fancy.’
Supermarket chain Iceland pokes fun at rival Waitrose after its ‘university essentials’ list included bouillon powder and rose harissa.
‘It seemed vulgar to join the 326 colleagues already taking part.’
Newsreader Huw Edwards explains why he isn’t appearing in BBC drama Bodyguard.