Richard Harrington, the former business minister, is to stand down from Parliament at the next election and will vote with opposition parties to block a no-deal Brexit next week, the Watford MP has told his constituents.
Though Harrington has insisted he had always intended to quit by 2022 – and that his decision is unrelated to Boris Johnson’s leadership – his deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the direction of the Conservative Party is an open secret in Westminster.
As one of the most outspoken opponents of the European Research Group on government benches, he spent his final months as a minister threatening to resign in order to vote against a no-deal exit, before finally doing so in March.
So the fact that Harrington is planning to defy the Conservative whip again next week is no surprise. As long as MPs and former May ministers of the same persuasion remain in Parliament – in other words, until the next election – there will be a small but nonetheless significant chunk of Tory parliamentary party that is unreconciled and irreconcilable to the government line on Brexit.
A number of those MPs have, like Harrington, said they will stand down at the next election: namely Oliver Letwin, who is masterminding efforts to legislate for an Article 50 extension, and Guto Bebb, one of the small band who have gone as far to say they would vote against their own government in a confidence motion. Dominic Grieve’s career in Conservative politics looks likely to be curtailed by his local party sooner rather than later. Nick Boles quit the party of his own accord, and Philip Lee is likely to follow him.
Voluntary or otherwise, the flight of MPs opposed to no-deal from the Conservative Party, or at least the obligations of the whip, makes a meaningful Tory rebellion against Boris Johnson in the remaining weeks of the 2017 Parliament much more likely.
But as far as Commons elected in 2019 or 2020 is concerned, it will have the opposite effect. As MPs like Harrington, Letwin and Boles withdraw from Tory politics, they are overwhelmingly likely to be replaced by candidates who – either out of conviction or convenience – will toe the Johnson line on no-deal. Recent selections have proved as much. That suggests that a general election is less, rather than more, likely to result in a negotiated solution to the Brexit impasse than some might think.