When Boris Johnson withdrew the whip from more than a score of Conservative MPs, there was some excited speculation about whether this might presage a split in the Party.
Philip Hammond pledged to mount a legal challenge against deselection – always a forlorn hope – and the press reported rumours that these MPs might even form a new grouping to contest the next general election.
Yet in the end, the 21 scattered in all sorts of different directions, almost half straight back into the Party. Only three have chosen to contest the election against the Tories: Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield; Anne Milton in Guildford; and ConHome’s own David Gauke in South West Hertfordshire .
Despite some excitable chatter about this putting these seats ‘at risk’, it is difficult to see how any of these three are even likely to deprive the Conservatives of the seat, let alone actually retain it themselves. There are a few reasons for this.
First, all three bequeath their loyalist successors huge Tory majorities: 24,543 in Beaconsfield, 17,040 in Guildford, and 19,550 in South West Herts. Second, these aren’t really the sort of ultra-Remainy seat you might anticipate the necessary collapse in Conservative support to occur in: according to Chris Hanretty’s figures the 2016 Leave shares for the three are 49 per cent, 41 per cent, and 46 per cent respectively. Only Guildford’s really stands out, and it has the lowest-profile rebel campaign.
So to win, each rebel would need to either bring over a huge share of the Conservative vote or consolidate nearly all of a seat’s non-Conservative voters plus a crucial segment of Tory Remainers. Yet polling suggests that Tory/Remain voters are ‘soft’, for the most part at least, and not animated by the EU issue to the extent required to be attracted to campaigns like this.
This leads to another problem: the fragmented nature of the rebellion. Whatever you think about the prospects of a new ‘liberal conservative’ grouping fighting the elections, it would certainly have provided an eye-catching media narrative and helped to raise the profile of its candidates. If organised in good time it might also have given those planning on running against the Party an opportunity to coordinate on policy and tactics, as well as perhaps persuade more of their colleagues to take the plunge.
Instead Gauke, Grieve, and Milton are very much fighting individual battles. Grieve has secured endorsement from the Liberal Democrat/Green/Welsh Nationalist ‘Unite to Remain’ ticket, but Gauke and Milton – who are fighting more Remain-y seats than he – have not.
Given that Gauke voted for Theresa May’s deal three times and only very recently came out for a second referendum it is understandable by the Lib Dems were wary of endorsing him, but it still means they’re splitting each others’ vote in what is already a rock-solid Tory seat.
So despite the ambitions of some of their grassroots sympathisers, it doesn’t look as if the Prime Minister’s previously-internal enemies are going to be replicating the Peelites just yet. Perhaps that’s for the best: as I wrote when the idea was first floated, it seems much more sensible to establish new parties for the post-Brexit era after we’ve actually left the EU.