Nuclear winter awaits Westminster after Johnson’s Brexit war
Potential extent of prime minister’s ‘collateral damage’ to Tories unclear to party
British prime minister Boris Johnson during a speech at the Convention of the North in Rotherham on Friday. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
Does Boris Johnson really want a Brexit deal? Not according to the 22 former Tory MPs who have left the party in the past fortnight. They were so convinced that the British prime minister wasn’t really making the effort to stop Britain crashing out of the European Union without an agreement that they thought it worth putting their political careers on the line. Amber Rudd, who resigned as the work and pensions secretary last Saturday night, complained that 80-90 per cent of the government’s effort was being spent on preparing for a no-deal exit. Others think Tory strategists have misread the 2016 Leave vote as being only for no deal.
Johnson’s own language and briefings from his aides have done little to diminish this impression. The prime minister has spent weeks building up the idea that a no-deal exit would be the fault of parliament and the EU, not the British government. On Monday, he told the Taoiseach that no deal would be a “failure of statecraft” for which both Irish and British governments would be responsible.
Meanwhile, Downing Street sources briefed after Rudd’s departure that she and her fellow Tory exiles had “chosen to wreck our negotiating position”. Insiders did insist that a deal was still possible, but just a great deal harder to achieve. But they did also seem to be ramping up the blame game as part of their preparations for the inevitable.
It could of course be that Johnson does want a deal, but knows it’s not very likely, particularly given the demands he has made of EU leaders haven’t had a warm reception at all. Not only are the negotiations with Brussels difficult, it’s also that if he does want a deal he needs to work out who in Westminster he should throw under a bus in order to strike an agreement.
His meetings on Tuesday with the DUP suggested he might yet disappoint the party that has propped the Tories up since 2017. The prime minister wants a single market for agriculture on the island of Ireland, something about which the DUP is very angsty. They’re not the only ones, though: the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteer Tory MPs also expects changes to the withdrawal agreement, and would also be furious if Johnson settles on this solution to the backstop.
But the Tory leader might conclude that this fury doesn’t matter any more. After all, the worst that could happen would be for those two groups to turn against him in a vote of no confidence, which would force the general election he wants anyway. This would be an explosive method of getting his way, but everything about Johnson’s approach to politics so far has involved blowing up not just precedent but his own party too.
At this point, the Tory party would, despite the initial rage of the ERG, still be able to campaign in unity on Brexit. The whole point of the ‘purge’ two weeks ago was to make clear that those who want to stop Britain leaving on October 31st are no longer welcome in the party. It wasn’t just the MPs who lost the whip, but the others – about a dozen – who have announced they won’t stand again at the next election, having privately concluded that there is no future for them in the party.
It has been a turbulent week, but many ERG MPs are happy that those Remain-minded colleagues are finally gone: they had grown deeply irritated by Dominic Grieve’s endless suspicion that the government was plotting something dastardly, and by Philip Hammond’s transformation from Eurosceptic Tory to an anti-Brexit campaigner who frequently impugned his party as being a right-wing sect. Many felt these Tories had mentally abandoned their party long ago.
“They’ve been gearing up for this for ages,” says one Downing Street source. “They want this fight, they want this to go to the courts.”
You can’t really have MPs who want to take their own party in government to court. Of course, the rebels argue that their party left them. But the fact remains that they would have struggled to campaign for their party’s manifesto anyway. Now they’re gone, the party can be coherently pro-Brexit at any cost.
There is still, though, a risk that even pro-Brexit MPs end up panicking about what’s happening. Members of parliament generally have a tendency to lose the plot whenever something goes wrong, especially if it’s something to which they should have been paying more attention. Senior Tories say they were warned by Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings that there would be “collateral damage” to the Conservative party as a result of his mission to get Britain out of the EU. But not all MPs really stopped to consider what that damage might really mean. They might currently be happy with the purge of the Remainers, but if Cummings’s plan for ‘collateral damage’ includes Johnson turning his back on some of the most ardent Brexiteers, the mood could well change.
Johnson has been busy trying to woo backbenchers this week, holding meetings, drinks and tearoom sessions in the House of Commons. His party is also selecting candidates to replace the MPs who were kicked out, though there are some suggestions that there aren’t enough pro-Brexit candidates on the approved list at the moment. You’d have to be a special sort of person to want to join the next no matter how much else is unclear, it seems pretty certain that Westminster will be in a nuclear winter after the events of the past few weeks.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator