As Boris Johnson strolled down his Voyager plane en route home from Biarritz on Monday evening, tie off and white shirt unbuttoned, to josh with the travelling journalists, he had a bullish air.
The G7 summit had passed off without gaffes; he had carefully navigated the tricky diplomatic territory between Donald Trump and the EU – and he and his fellow old Etonian Ed Llewellyn, the UK’s ambassador to France, had enjoyed two bracing swims in the sea.
But at the PM’s closing press conference in Biarritz – delayed while Trump held his own rambling address – Johnson had chosen his words exceedingly carefully.
Little more than 24 hours later, the explanation began to emerge. First, a speech by Sajid Javid billed as setting out his economic philosophy was abruptly cancelled. Then, late on Tuesday night, rumours began to swirl of a meeting of the privy council – a gathering of senior ministers with the Queen – at her Scottish summer retreat in Balmoral.
Downing Street refused to confirm the story – and instead, began scrambling to accelerate the drastic plan drawn up by Johnson’s legislative adviser, Nikki da Costa, and chief strategist, Dominic Cummings.
On Wednesday morning, a conference call of cabinet ministers was hastily convened at the insistence of the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, part of whose role is to act as the guardian of the constitution at the heart of Downing Street.
Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg was boarding an early-morning flight to Aberdeen. His fellow privy council members Natalie Evans, the leader of the House of Lords, and the chief whip Mark Spencer – neither easily recognisable by travellers – flew separately, to avoid scrutiny.
As news of their mission broke, all hell broke loose. Johnson’s hiring of Cummings was widely read as a signal that in his bid to achieve the “mission” of Brexit, he was willing to tear up convention and ride roughshod over the usual niceties of politics.
While Johnson does not share the world-view of Donald Trump, he does privately admit a grudging admiration for the way the maverick US president plays the game of politics, believing there is more method in it than is sometimes apparent.
Dominic Grieve quickly began liaising with like-minded colleagues en route to a wedding in Italy, his wife at the wheel. The Speaker, John Bercow, issued a blistering statement from sunny Turkey. The Tory veteran Michael Heseltine took to the airwaves from Montenegro in a natty embroidered shirt.
But the blueprint for the rebels’ response had already been set at a key meeting on Tuesday, convened by Jeremy Corbyn.
On the conference call with his cabinet colleagues, who had all signed up to the “mission” of leaving the EU by Halloween come what may, there was little open dissent – though Amber Rudd was noticeably less enthusiastic than colleagues, and Julian Smith asked about the legal advice Downing Street had commissioned to underpin the decision.
Beyond Downing Street, the backlash was ferocious. Jeremy Corbyn – not a noted monarchist – fired off a missive to the Queen, asking for an audience, and urging her to reverse the decision.
But it was too late. The “order in council”, formally recording her approval of the decision at the privy council meeting, headed with the emblem of the crown, had already been published.
By the end of the day, a scratch crowd of protesters outside parliament, many of them draped in EU flags, were belting out “no one voted for Bor-is”, to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, accompanied on the trumpet.
Rees-Mogg, sent out on the airwaves to defend the decision in his trademark plummy vowels the next morning, dismissed the outrage as “candyfloss”, and stuck rigidly to the explanation that holding a Queen’s speech was entirely usual for a new government.
And Johnson’s outriders do not mind their opponents bandying around #Brexitcoup hashtags and threatening to block bridges – or in the case of the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, even calling for a general strike.
They believe it will only help them paint their opponents as extremists, as they draw up the battle lines for the coming general election.
The backing of Rudd and the few other erstwhile remainers who are still onboard the Boris bandwagon is heavily conditional on his insistence that all this parliamentary hardball is ultimately aimed at getting a Brexit deal through parliament. “Amber will take a lot, if it leads to a deal,” said an ally.
There is bitterness among this group, too, against the Labour MPs who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times. “They had the softest Brexit deal they were ever going to get on the table. They threw it away. It’s just bad tactics,” says one senior Tory.
That view was perhaps most clearly expressed in the parting words of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, as she announced her resignation on Thursday.
“We had three golden opportunities to support a deal. The people now who are saying they would do anything to avoid a no deal had a goal gaping in front of them three times and hit the ball over the bar. For all the elaborate plans of bringing down governments, the simplest way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal,” she said.
She said Johnson had promised her, face to face, that he wanted to get a Brexit deal – and urged him to do so. She left unspoken whether she would continue to support him if he pursues a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
While Davidson insisted that her departure had as much to do with motherhood as Brexit, it underlined the sense that the Johnson administration is a very long way from David Cameron’s detoxified 2010 Tories.
Johnson told his cabinet there was a 50/50 chance of a deal; and Brussels-watchers say there is just a glimmer of an opportunity opening up.
Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultancy, who is well connected with EU decision-makers, says by relentlessly singling out the Irish border backstop as the unacceptable aspect of Theresa May’s deal, Johnson may have opened up some wriggle room.
“When you just focus on one process, one problem, it creates space to negotiate on other things,” he said. “I do think that there’s a small chance a deal gets done.”
But he still puts the probability of that outcome at just 15% – and is convinced the PM is pursuing a “twin-track” strategy: pursue a deal, but be ready to leave with no deal if it comes to the crunch.
Johnson and his opponents will spend the weekend preparing for the dramatic constitutional clash that will be played out in the chambers of the Palace of Westminster when MPs return from their summer break next Tuesday. But few of them doubt that the ultimate battle will be have to be fought at the polls.