Downing Street has said Theresa May continues to have full confidence in her chief whip, Julian Smith, after he publicly criticised the Government’s approach to Brexit and accused Cabinet members of the “worst example of ill-discipline in British political history”.
In a highly unusual move, Mrs May’s enforcer spoke out to suggest that ministers had pursued the wrong strategy after the Prime Minister lost the Conservatives’ Commons majority in the 2017 snap election.
Mr Smith said the result of the poll meant that Mrs May simply did not have enough MPs to back a harder version of Brexit.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Mrs May continued to have full confidence Mr Smith as chief whip, but declined to discuss whether she had been warned about his remarks in advance of the broadcast.
The comments were published by the BBC amid speculation that Parliament may force the PM to seek membership of a customs union with Brussels in order to pass her deal, which would mean ripping up one of her key red lines.
“The thing that people forget is that the Conservative Party went to get a majority in order to deliver Brexit (and) failed to get a majority,” the chief whip said.
“The Government as a whole probably should just have been clearer on the consequences of that. The parliamentary arithmetic would mean that this would be inevitably a softer type of Brexit.”
While the strategy was apparently misjudged, Mr Smith said he was “frustrated” by MPs who “don’t see the light as clearly as I do”.
Mrs May’s deal has now fallen three times in the Commons, with Tory MPs among those who voted against it on each occasion.
However Mr Smith highlighted that a lack of discipline extended all the way to the Cabinet, with ministers “sitting around the Cabinet table … trying to destabilise her (Mrs May)”.
“This is I think the worst example of ill-discipline in Cabinet in British political history,” he said.
Asked at a Westminster media briefing whether the PM agreed that the Government should have been clearer about the consequences of the 2017 result, Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “In a number of speeches, the Prime Minister made it clear that there was a need to bring the country back together after the Brexit vote. That’s what she’s been working to achieve.”
Asked whether Mrs May shared Mr Smith’s assessment of Cabinet ill-discipline, the spokesman replied: “The Prime Minister has said on any number of occasions that this is a subject which brings out strong emotions in MPs on all sides of the debate.
“I think what’s important is that everybody in Government continues to work towards the goal of delivering on the referendum verdict.”
He added: “I will leave it to historians to make their judgments on history.”
Responding to Mr Smith’s comments, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s not clear to me that going softer is the way to command support.”
She added: “If you look at the parliamentary arithmetic now, it’s not clear that something like a customs union actually commands support.”
Ms Truss said: “It’s difficult to compare Cabinets through the ages.
“Of course, this is an incredibly testing time; it’s a time when we have got a minority Government.
“And there are differences of opinion, I won’t deny that.”
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told the BBC the chief whip was “trying to make the facts fit the situation at a later date”.