Boris Johnson’s decision to withdraw the whip from Conservative MPs who don’t support him today was taken after our last monthly survey went out. But we have little doubt that most Tory activists will back it emphatically. They want Brexit delivered. They understand that putting it off again wouldn’t assist a deal, since the Withdrawal Agreement has failed to pass the Commons three times, and that a fourth attempt would fail too.
They therefore grasp that the consequence of another delay is a further push for a second referendum, since its supporters will argue that nature abhors a vacuum, and that the voters must make decision if MPs can’t. It follows that there is now little practical difference between, say, Dominic Grieve, who opposes all forms of Brexit and, say, Philip Hammond, who supported Theresa May’s deal, since both are conniving to the same end: revocation.
Those activists will thus conclude that Johnson was right to suggest yesterday that, as long as the EU believes that the Commons can bind his hands, it has no incentive to offer better terms for a deal. It can simply sit back and wait to see what happens. So they will conclude that Hammond and company are backing not their own government but a negotiating opponent. Some of them will add that there is a word for people who do that – begining with “T”.
All this explains why many Party members will cheer when Johnson removes the whip from those Tory MPs who don’t back him today. Activists will delight in him showing the smack of firm government instead of the hand-wringing of his precedecessor – and in the face of a rule-breaking Speaker, too. On balance, they’re right. But there are three reasons to have reservations about the Prime Minister’s decision.
First, today’s vote is not, strictly speaking, a vote of confidence – and might not be even if the Fixed Terms Parliament Act didn’t bar it from being one. For it isn’t clear if Johnson will immediately seek a general election if the Government loses the vote today. The Commons could agree to consider the Grieve/Hammond-backed Bill, but then reject it at second reading, especially since it would hand the EU further power over the extension date.
Or MPs may amend it out of all recognition. Or the Lords talk it out. Or Johnson exploit any flaws in its wording. Or delay sending it on to the Queen. Or refuse to do so altogether. Remember: the Prime Minister has made no public commitment to an election, let alone one on any precise date. We’re not saying that he won’t seek to call a poll if the Bill succeeds, or even leaps Parliamentary hurdles. But we wonder if he will do so if it clears the first fence today.
This distinction between removing the Whip on a confidence vote and other votes matters. If a Conservative MP votes against his Party on a confidence matter, he is bang to rights: it is well-established that he then loses the whip – and so can’t contest a general election as a Tory candidate if one is forthcoming. But are Party members really content to see it removed for votes that are not those of confidence?
Before our pro-Brexit, anti-Withdrawal Agreement readers cry “yes” – smacking their lips at the prospect of Grieve and company being cast into outer darkness – they might want to mull the second reason. What applies to anti-No Deal Brexit MPs now might apply to anti-Withdrawal Agreement MPs later. Today, Dominic Grieve. Tomorrow, Mark Francois? Could we see a re-run of John Major’s whip removal from eight Maastricht rebels?
ConservativeHome is told that Johnson was asked in Cabinet yesterday whether we would also remove the whip from any Tory MP who opposes any revised deal that he reaches. He replied that he would. Such a deal is very unlikely to be agreed. But if it is, the boot will clearly be on the other foot – and it is the Spartans that will get the kicking. Moral: be careful what you wish for.
Finally, there is a consideration close to the very heart of this site. ConservativeHome gained lift-off in 2005 when Tim Montgomerie championed the right of Party members to vote for its leader. We have backed the role and rights of activists ever since. There are few left. Choosing Parliamentary candidates is one of them – and even that is hedged about with powers for CCHQ and so, by extension, for the leadership of the day.
Let us imagine for a moment that Party members in Beaconsfield decide to reselect Grieve. We don’t believe that they will. And we don’t, for better or worse, think they should. But in the event that they did, should CCHQ really be able to stop them? Shouldn’t local Assocations have the right to select their candidate? It is far from obvious to us that the answer is no.
Decisions taken for short-term reasons sometimes turn out to have long-term consequences that their supporters don’t see at the time. ConservativeHome’s mission statement on this site declares that we are supportive of the Conservative Party but independent of it. But it is possible now to imagine this site having to service the backers of no fewer than three right-of-centre parties.
First, of course, the Conservatives themselves. Second, a new centre-right, anti-Brexit movement fighting a coming coupon election. It would contain Hammond and David Gauke and Alistair Burt and others. Yes, it would be all leaders and few followers, rather like the Peelites of the nineteenth century, but real none the less. And finally, the Brexit Party. Today’s consequences are incalculable – for us and, far more importantly, for the country.