Boris Johnson may have won the battle but Tory rebels will win the war
Tories finally unite, but the wrong ones, behind the wrong position
UK prime minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons: It is some feat to make Jeremy Corbyn look like a statesman, but the man who imagines himself after the great leaders of the ages past managed just that. Photograph: Getty Images
When David Cameron called a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2015 he was trying to unite a Conservative Party that was fundamentally divided, but seemingly not beyond reconciliation. That decision came to define Cameron’s political legacy. And taking his rationale at face value – that he was simply resolving a “party management issue” – then Cameron can surely rest easy.
On Tuesday night, over three years after the UK voted to leave the EU, prime minister Boris Johnson expelled 21 Tory MPs for defying his government, and for trying to legislate against a no-deal Brexit.
Among them were two former chancellors, several former cabinet ministers, and the longest serving MP currently in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party is no longer divided – but it is doubtful that this is exactly what Cameron had in mind back when he ran on a campaign pledge of holding an EU-membership referendum.
A party that fires allegations of “extremism” at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is now a party that has just jettisoned vast swathes of its moderate base
The party, at odds with itself over the European question since the 1970s, is now united. When Margaret Thatcher – formerly a staunch defender of the then-European Community and an architect of the single market – accused the European project of “superstate” aspirations, she set the tone for the creeping euroscepticism that has grown in the party for over 30 years, pitting the eurosceptics against the moderates. Those preoccupied with national sovereignty and the European institutions they believe infringe upon it, versus the modern one-nation style Conservatives that have other priorities.
On Tuesday night the eurosceptics won that battle. In expelling the rebels, Boris Johnson firmly cemented his party’s position as anti-Europe and pro-hard Brexit, opposed to parliamentarianism in favour of directly channelling the will of the people. But this victory is nothing if not pyrrhic.
Not simply because Johnson squandered his wafer-thin majority. But because he’s nailed the Conservatives’ colours to the mast, turning it from a party of Ken Clarke and John Major to one that would rather see Dominic Raab (who first mooted the idea of prorogation to solve the Brexit impasse) and Jacob Rees-Mogg on the front benches.
The price Boris Johnson will now pay for uniting the Tories behind his pursuit of Brexit – “do or die,” “come what may” – is a total realignment in the party and what it stands for.
What was once considered the party of fiscal soundness is now spending billions of pounds on no-deal preparation, and promising huge and unchecked spending increases across the UK to court voters in anticipation of an early election.
A party that fires allegations of “extremism” at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is now a party that has just jettisoned vast swathes of its moderate base. And, a party that considers itself to be the natural party of government now hangs on by a thread with no majority, and with prorogation as their last remaining vehicle to deliver Brexit.
If the Conservatives in their current incarnation go into an election, their candidates will be standing as Conservatives in nothing but name. Meanwhile 21 moderate voiced MPs now find themselves politically homeless on the benches of the Commons – simply for using parliamentary mechanisms to protest a government that in their eyes no longer stands for the best interests of their constituents.
As Johnson rose to his feet in the chamber on Tuesday evening, ranting and raving at the opposition benches after his defeat, one thing was very clear: The Conservative Party can no longer lay claim to their “strong and stable” mantra.
It is some feat to make Corbyn look like a statesman, but the man who imagines himself after the great leaders of the ages past managed just that. And, as Jacob Rees-Mogg was pictured lolling across the front benches in apparent contempt for his parliamentary colleagues opposite, it consolidated the image of a party that can’t even pretend its interests lie in creating “a country that works for everyone” anymore.
Meanwhile the Tory rebels may have lost their job security. And they may have lost their membership of a party to which many displayed lifelong loyalty. But they have emerged as the real champions of conservatism – defenders of representative democracy, parliamentary sovereignty, and the civility of political process which the Conservative Party was once defined by.
Cameron’s referendum has finally united the Tories. But it managed to unite the wrong ones behind the wrong position. Johnson might believe he’s won a battle – but parliament and the Tory rebels will certainly win the war.
Finn McRedmond is based in Westminster and writes for current affairs website Reaction.life and City AM