Is Tory discipline on the verge of breaking down?

Gavin Williamson (left) and Boris Johnson (middle) on recent visit to Poland Image copyright AFP
Image caption Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson (L) has been described as a "child" by one colleague

After their autumn conference the Tories had the blues.

The spectacle of the prime minister's speech, that was as fun for those watching as having your eyelashes pulled out one by one, has been followed by many bumpy months, with muddling through being the modus operandi.

The governing party certainly isn't happy, but Number 10 have managed to keep going, many Conservatives' frankly dumbfounded but frankly grateful that they are level-ish in the polls, even if those numbers sometimes slip behind.

But as the mercury has hit the top of the gauge in the last couple of days, are the Conservatives in danger of tipping into serious summer madness?

The Brexit fandango is reaching (another) climax. Don't expect too much from this week's Brussels summit, although it's quite possible the EU may be rather, shall we say, punchy, about the need for Britain to get on with it. But the weeks that follow will matter very much.

The prime minister is due to see other European leaders again, either one on one in London, or abroad at the start of the week. Then, a week on Friday, she is summoning her whole Cabinet for a spot of country air.

This meeting is not just to enjoy the bounty of the Home Counties, but (finally, again) to try to forge a consensus among the factions so that the poor old Brexit negotiators can know what on earth it is the government really wants them to fight for.

The outline of this is to be expected in a Brexit White Paper, likely on 11 July, which will provide in a detailed way in black and white, the framework for Britain's relationship with the rest of the EU for decades to come.

It is not just about finally concluding the messy episode that readers of this blog are very well used to, getting the cabinet to agree what form of customs arrangements are likely to take after Brexit.

For all of the reasons we've discussed many times here this will not be easy. Customs arrangements sketch out only one of the dividing lines on a huge canvas of political disagreements.

Jokes abound in SW1 already about the kind of vague compromise that will be reached on that - will it be a 'max-partnership', 'customs-fac' or 'partnership arrangement'.

But what the government wants to do is come up with a more detailed version of the Prime Minister's Mansion House speech back in March where she gave her desired broad, very broad approach.

EU diplomats say the White Paper simply has to be credible in Brussels, or else they will lose even more faith in the British ability to do a deal.

But at home, it has to at least temporarily, get buy-in from a majority of members of the Cabinet, and at least, not be immediately trashed by the different wings of the Tory party.

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Media caption'Wood burning Gove': Truss fumes at cabinet colleague

Surely they'll all want the same thing, you may cry. They are in the same party after all. Just in case you need a little reminder, only a few days ago the Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, told us it would be unacceptable to stay in the single market for goods when we leave the EU.

This afternoon the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, almost went the full Norway. If you read this blog often enough I won't patronise you by going back through that again - if you don't there is an explanation here.

But the run-up to that major event is becoming an ever more stroppy, ever more surreal political environment.

One minister told me it's like a bad 45 year marriage: "We've stayed together for the sake of the kids, given birth to Brexit which is now ready to leave home and we're fighting now over who gets what."

A former senior minister said, "it's just broken", suggesting that the Cabinet does not understand how bad the situation really is. "They are completely out of touch." they said, blaming the prime minister's desire to keep everyone on side on Brexit for the boiling tensions,

"Everyone leaves the room thinking she has agreed with them. It's corrosive. You can argue it out to come to a position but she just won't."

In the next ten days there will be much, much more to say about the success or lack thereof of the next phase of the Brexit saga. If nothing else, if the heat wave lasts until then, gathered hacks will be able to look forward to sunbathing rather than freezing at the end of Chequers very, very long gravel drive - mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.

While it is a messy picture though, there is not that much that's surprising about the backdrop. Brexit has been driving rival Tory factions crazy for many, many months. It's extremely difficult to corral them in a minority government. Different ministers sounding off about the misperceptions of their opposing gangs don't even always lead hacks to raise a pencil.

But that instability has fuelled an atmosphere where party discipline seems on the point of breaking down, even though with the whips in overdrive, government is achieving its most important objective of getting its business through Parliament.

Yet the Cabinet seems sometimes to be creating the appearance of chaos where there need not be any. For some of his colleagues, the Foreign Secretary's (yes, him) latest exploits have gone way past testing the patience of saints. What might have been defended as that phrase beloved by some, "cheeky bantz' has become reputation-ruining stuff.

This does not, repeat, does not, mean that it is all totally terminal for him. He is still a big figure in the party, still has a huge job in the government, and his supporters point to his unrivalled ability to get noticed, and to communicate plainly. There are only a tiny handful of politicians known by their first name in the country, who people cross the road to meet.

He is one of them, even if these days as many of those who want a selfie might want to say something rude too. But in this fractious summer, Mr Johnson is certainly not the only one pushing the rules.

Take the new-ish Defence Secretary. Keen, as occupants of that post are, to secure more funding for his department, Gavin Williamson is fighting hard to get more out of the Treasury coffers.

He has an eager mini-army of defence stalwarts on the backbenches who he knows will be onside. No one ever fell foul either of the Tory membership by going soft on defence.

But some of his colleagues are derisory about how brazen he has been. One of them scornfully told me, "he's a child", and some elements of Number 10 are losing patience too.

Then there's Liz Truss who tonight has poked fun at her colleague Michael Gove, mocking his conversion to all things environmental, making a speech that essentially ridicules some of the Tories' own recent policies.

More seriously, Ms Truss, the number two at the Treasury, had a pop at Mr Williamson and the idea of raising taxes, when a major move on the NHS by the PM last week promised just that.

In less than seven days there have been not just embarrassments and noises off, but more importantly very public statements of direction and ethos that seem to be contradictory.

What is the public to make of it if one day one minister says it is well worth raising taxes to pay for the public services so many voters care about, if the next, a different minister says that is not their party's way?

One former minister says "what Liz and the Ministry of Defence is calling for is incompatible".

What is business supposed to make of a party which has traditionally stood alongside them, but whose ministers swing from saying they listen, to saying it's inappropriate for them to speak out?

What is the rest of the Tory party, let alone the EU, to make of a party whose top brass seem to be enjoying disagreeing so much?

Fingers point very quickly to the reason why this is happening. The prime minister has survived in office by (here supporters would say skilfully) keeping both sides of a divided party on board.

But her critics say that leads to a vacuum which, in tweets tonight commentator Tim Montgomerie says, nature, and politics abhor. Define or be defined. Lead, or be led. If she won't try to make her arguments publicly, let alone privately, others will fill the silence.

And in the last couple of weeks it does seem that something has changed. It is not so much that we didn't know there was Tory disagreement, it is that some of the most senior figures seem to have stopped even trying to pretend that they agree.

Perhaps this is a more honest way of doing politics and to be admired. Perhaps it is old fashioned to posit that it matters.

But in our current system, governments need to be able to agree amongst themselves in order to decide what they want to do. And don't forget this isn't just pantomime, what they actually decide can affect all our lives.

In ten days the prime minister is going to try to get her Cabinet to agree what they want from Brexit.

Calm may have returned by then, a cool atmosphere of peace and harmony could have replaced all the fever.

Politics moves so fast now that in a couple of weeks this blog might seem like something from another century. But Westminster, as well as the rest of the country, is feeling the heat.