Since last year’s general election, the threat of deselection has occupied Labour MPs critical of Jeremy Corbyn. No matter how fierce their disagreements with the leadership on emotive issues such as Syria and Russia, Corbynsceptic heads have largely remained below the parapet. In part, this has been due to the fear of reprisals from local members – particularly as the left makes advances within constituency parties.
But as the parliamentary battle over Brexit legislation grows ever more rancorous, it is Tory MPs who fear deselection more. Despite being popularly associated with the Corbynite left, its spectre is invoked increasingly by both Leavers and Remainers on the government benches. Philip Lee, the justice minister who resigned this morning, was barely an hour out of government when the chairman of his constituency party told the Daily Telegraph that his resignation could result in his deselection before the next election.
Lee’s fellow rebels are acutely aware of such threats. Leavers have made them publicly in the past. After 11 Conservative MPs backed a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal last December, their Eurosceptic colleague Nadine Dorries said: “They should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again.” And privately, the mutineers themselves have warned that MPs who share their anxieties over Brexit’s foreboding direction of travel would not join them in defying the whip for fear of angering their local Conservative associations.
Some Tory MPs doubt that any of the threats will ever come to fruition – one points to Nick Timothy’s claim that Theresa May intervened to stop the deselection of arch-rebel Heidi Allen ahead of last year’s election. Others emphasise the importance of personal relationships between MPs and members in what are, in many cases, relatively small associations.
But that is not to say mutineers have no reason to fear deselection. Unlike in Labour, where the arcane system of trigger ballots means deselecting an MP is no easy ask, Tory members have at their disposal a relatively simple mechanism for getting rid of their MP ahead of an election (they must win the support of a majority of their local association’s executive council or, failing that, a majority of its members). While Tory members are overwhelmingly pro-Leave, the Labour grassroots largely favour a soft Brexit. For Labour MPs who have generally kept their counsel on Corbyn since the general election, this makes rebelling easier. For Conservatives and their local members, however, the issue is existential.
Then there is the small matter that, despite the extent to which potential Labour deselections are talked up in the media, Tory members do it more often: no Labour MP has been deselected since 2010, while two Tories have (Tim Yeo in 2015 and Anne Macintosh in 2014). One rebel, Dominic Grieve, has learnt this from experience: he became a Tory candidate in the wake of a deselection in 1997. The strength of feeling over Brexit could see others take place. With more contentious battles on the horizon, we can expect to see the word deselection appear more often in stories about Conservatives than Corbynsceptics for the foreseeable future.