On 26 November 2015, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries accused Jeremy Corbyn of issuing “threats of deselection” and denounced Labour as the “nasty party”. Last night, however, Dorries became the mirror image of those she reviled. “They should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP, ever again,” she tweeted of the 11 Conservative rebels who backed a “meaningful vote” on Brexit (a demand seconded by Tim Montgomerie, the editor of UnHerd and the former editor of ConservativeHome).
Ever since Corbyn’s election, the media has been fixated by the subject of Labour deselections (largely out of proportion to their likelihood). But they are not unheard of among Conservatives. To be readopted as an election candidate, Tory MPs must win the support of a majority of their local association’s executive council or, failing that, a majority of association members.
In 2014, in advance of the 2015 general election, Anne Macintosh was deselected in Thirsk and Malton, while Tim Yeo was deselected in South Suffolk (blaming his environmentalism, support of equal marriage and pro-Remain stance). Ironically, Dominic Grieve, who tabled the rebel amendment, became a Tory candidate after his predecessor Tim Smith was deselected in Beaconsfield (owing to his involvement in the “cash for questions” affair).
John Strafford, who ran the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, later wrote a guide based on Smith’s deposition. “Once the campaign is launched you need at least three of them [members] to go public each day – the more senior the members, the better,” he said. “This gives a fresh impetus, every day, to the campaign.
“Get the media on board: radio, TV national press – in Beaconsfield we got The Times and the Daily Mirror – and most of all, the local press. It is essential that you have several people that will talk to the media. Unless you can give other names than yourself the media will lose interest. Increase the pressure on the Officers of the Association by getting your supporters to telephone them. You will be surprised how after a few calls the Officers become convinced that the whole Association is up in arms. Put the phone on the hook for calls from Central Office. Party members do not like interference from Central Office. This is the members’ decision about who is to represent them at Westminster.”
The fear of deselection has long been an underexplored reason for the limited Tory revolts. Though the majority of Conservative MPs backed Remain, more than two-thirds of party members voted Leave. But on a matter as grave as Brexit, an increasing number of backbenchers echo Grieve’s view: “There is a time for everybody to stand up and be counted. As Churchill said: ‘He’s a good party man: he puts the party before himself and the country before his party and that is what I intend to do’.” Tory Remainers also point to the Brexiteers’ hyper-rebellious past.
David Cameron called the EU referendum in the hope of ending the Tories’ decades-long civil war. But rather than settling the European question, the Brexit vote has merely intensified it.