Boris Johnson’s arrogance faltered on the evening of 2 September, when making his statement – or plea – to potential rebel MPs to support him and his European policy, and thus prevent his opponents from taking control of the parliamentary timetable. Reality appeared to have kicked in about the gravity of the confrontation into which Johnson – with his strings pulled by Dominic Cummings – had led his party. There was a touch of more in sorrow than in anger when he threatened a general election, and the sorrow was no surprise. Although many believe the early prorogation of parliament was designed to provoke such anger that the government would be forced into an election (assuming it had Labour’s support under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act), it would not be one in which a Tory victory was a foregone conclusion.
The party – like Labour – is not entirely unified. Most Remainer Tories have, with varying degrees of reluctance, shown tribal loyalty to Johnson since his election, accepting that the time had come to honour the result of the 2016 referendum. Others have taken the view of Ruth Davidson, who went quietly, possibly taking 13 Scottish Tory seats with her. Many MPs, Remainer or Brexiteer, also felt Johnson represented the best chance of their holding their seats. They may measure the truth of that out sooner than they thought.
However, the early prorogation announced last week disturbed many who would not vote against their party, including some more traditionalist Brexiteers. What united them was the view that, if the Tory party doesn’t stand for respect for the constitution, in its spirit as well as its letter, then what does it stand for? Also, precedents had been set that, if used by another party in power, would spark utter outrage among a Tory opposition. Finally, there were doubts that the Cummings-induced strategy of fire and the sword was the best option. The decision to scrap a meeting Johnson was scheduled to have with potential rebels on 2 September reflected Cummings’s style of simply ignoring his opponents, deeming them irrelevant. Such disdain, and the contemptuous way Cummings undermines the civil service, will make it even harder to heal divisions after an election.
Even those supporting Johnson are not united. MPs mock the “flexible” approach of Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan and Matt Hancock that has allowed them to support a prorogation they previously denounced. “They don’t have a shred of credibility left,” a former minister told me. There is more than unease about Cummings, whose humiliation of Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, by sacking his special adviser, rattled some ministers. “They are putting down a marker with Saj that they are in charge of the Treasury, and he does as he is told; this is about more than Brexit,” an MP observed.
Until recently, few thought an election would happen before 31 October. The view was that Johnson would, by the time of a poll, have taken Britain out without a deal, or would have a “deal” to brag about. However, some hard-line Brexiteers also believed any such deal would be little different from that offered to Theresa May, and thrice rejected by parliament already. “The only truly clean way for us to leave,” one MP said to me before this week’s dramas, “is without a deal. Then we have an election, the Brexit Party have no cause on which to stand, and we win handsomely.”
Those Tories who think the Brexit Party will go quietly once we have left the EU should read a recent post on the Conservative Woman website by John Longworth, Brexit Party MEP and chairman of the Leave Means Leave pressure group. Headlined “Are we watching a monumental act of treachery?” the post argues that Johnson will accept a deal that includes the present withdrawal agreement and political declaration. To the Brexit Party, the agreement and the declaration “give control or force upon us a commitment to a direction of travel in respect of EU defence structures, EU finance structures, control over our spending and competitiveness via state aid rules, ultimate jurisdiction of the ECJ in many areas, continued adherence to the single market and customs union, particularly during a transition period of at least two years when we will have no say in how this plays out. It is Brino [Brexit in name only] writ large. It is not Brexit.”
For Johnson’s supporters, hopes of a pact with the Brexit Party endure, despite the outright mistrust, put forcefully by Longworth, of Johnson and those around him. The Brexiteers also ignore the reluctance by senior Brexit Party figures to contemplate any arrangement with a party whose strategy is controlled by Cummings. And they also ignore the assumption that Cummings would not tolerate a pact with the Brexit Party. Many of the Brexit Party’s candidates, and some of their backers, are spoiling for a fight with the Tories, fundamentally because they do not trust Johnson to pursue a policy of Brexit purity, but expect him, if given the chance, to compromise.
That is why calling an election represents a very high-risk strategy for the Tories. The punishment of the small minority of hard-line Remainers is likely to drive some of their sympathisers in the country into the arms of the Liberal Democrats. Some potential Tory voters may well be driven into the arms of the Brexit Party, particularly if it argues that the “deal” the Tories profess to want if re-elected is one that, even without the Irish backstop, still contains the toxic elements Longworth has outlined.
In July, many of Johnson’s backers admitted he was hopeless with detail, but said he would have a “brilliant” team around him. That team turned out to be Cummings, and all that has entailed. Cummings and his scorched-earth policy have been liabilities rather than assets, and have done nothing to maximise Tory support. The party’s belief that a Jeremy Corbyn-led government is impossible may be right; but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will easily confect one of its own.
“The battle for parliament”: read the rest of our symposium on Britain’s political crisis here.