In September last year, 21 Conservative MPs voted for a motion introduced by Oliver Letwin to again take control of the Parliamentary timetable away from the Government. Its aim was to allow time for Hillary Benn to then introduce a Bill that would seek to rule out a No Deal Brexit.
The main reason that most of those MPs did so – they included two former Chancellors of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, plus five other former Cabinet Ministers – was that they feared Johnson was set on precisely such an outcome.
The whip was then removed from them. Amber Rudd, then a Cabinet Minister herself, resigned a few days later, describing the whip removal as “an act of political vandalism” and adding that “I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the Government’s main objective”. She also left the Conservative Parliamentary Party.
Next month, Boris Johnson reached a Brexit deal with the EU. The Commons then passed the Second Reading of a Bill to enact it, but rejected the accompanying timetable motion. So Johnson sought the general election which he eventually got, winning his present near-landslide majority of 80 last December – to “get Brexit done”.
And now he has reached another milestone in that journey – this time clinching a trade deal, the second installment of the Article 50 process (as the EU envisaged it). Once again, some of his critics claimed that he wanted No Deal all along. And once again, second time round, they were wrong.
So what happened to the 21 – a mix of backbenchers some of whom wanted a deal, and some of whom didn’t, because their objective was a second referendum? (These consisted of Guto Bebb, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Sam Gyimah – all of whom had joined the Brexiteer “Spartans” in opposing Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement third time round.)
Four of them, Steve Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes, had the whip restored before the election, and are Tory MPs to this day. One of them, Richard Benyon, also got the whip back: it was announced earlier this week that he is to become a peer. Another, Ed Vaizey, is a peer already.
Four others had the whip restored but stood down from the Commons last December. Two contested the election as Liberal Democrats and three as independent candidates: all lost Hammond didn’t have the whip restored, rejoined the party this year – and is also in the Upper House.
So some have flourished like the green bay tree – if remaining in the Commons or going to the Lords is one’s measure of prosperity – and some have not.
“Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention,’ Andrew Gimson wrote recently on this site. Those guardians insist on misreading him. Some of them sought to bring his house down while doing so, and collapsed their own instead.