Boris Johnson has bigger problems than the make-up of his cabinet

Cabinet MPs are making plans to jump before they’re pushed, but Johnson should be more worried about his working majority.

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Would the last Remainer to leave Boris Johnson's cabinet please turn off the lights? Philip Hammond and David Gauke have revealed they will resign their posts on Wednesday afternoon, just before Theresa May's successor takes office.

Both the Chancellor and the Justice Secretary used interviews over the weekend to restate that they would sooner leave government than sign up to a no-deal Brexit. The same is true for up to a dozen more ministers who will join them on the backbenches just after May finishes her final PMQs. That truth is so blindingly obvious that it barely qualifies as news.

But their calculated show of defiance towards the incoming regime does two things: it denies Johnson the satisfaction of sacking them, as he inevitably would have, and it also shows that the new prime minister will face an anti-no-deal resistance far more organised and militant than Theresa May ever did. A sizeable minority of his parliamentary party are not just unreconciled to what will almost certainly be his Brexit policy, but irreconcilable.

As the deadline for Tory members to return their ballots closes today, the chatter in Westminster has turned to who might replace Hammond, Gauke and just about everyone else in the current cabinet. The almost comically broad, fissiparous nature of Johnson's coalition means there are far more questions than convincing answers. Those aired in this weekend's papers included: What do you do about Michael Gove? Will Priti Patel be home secretary? Can Michael Fallon return to cabinet? Will Iain Duncan Smith? Will Jeremy Hunt keep his job? If not, where will he be moved? Can he be moved? Who will be chancellor? Who will be chief whip? Will the hard Brexiteers get seats at the table? Will he increase the number of women around the top table?

All, to one degree or another, are perfectly valid lines of inquiry whose answers will set the tone for Johnson's premiership. But ultimately, with his working majority set to be reduced to just three next week, there is only one question that will really matter for the next prime minister: just how far are the 40 or so Conservative MPs who have rebelled to stop no-deal in the last week prepared to go in order to stop it? For the answer, look to those who are leaving government – and how politely they are doing it – rather than those joining.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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