MPs who cross the floor by definition change the political balance of the Parliaments they are elected to, but less attention is paid to the effects defections have on those that follow. Four Tory MPs have quit the party over Europe this year: Heidi Allen, Nick Boles, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. All four are opponents of a no-deal Brexit, and each resigned from the Conservative Party with harsh words for its membership.
With selections underway in all four of the defectors’ seats, and with Boris Johnson having just won a resounding leadership election victory on a no-deal platform, we can reasonably expect local members to select the opposite sort of candidates to those who quit: that is to say strong Brexiteers who are supportive of the new regime and its policy on the EU.
So it has proved in Grantham and Stamford, the safe Conservative seat currently represented by Boles, who resigned the whip before he could be deselected over his opposition to no deal. Gareth Davies, a Yorkshire businessman and Johnson supporter, won the selection by what one local member described as “a landslide” on the first round of voting, a relatively rare feat. Save for a relatively close shave in 1997, Grantham has never been anything but a comfortable Tory hold, and Davies will likely be an MP for as long as he likes – provided he learns the lesson of his predecessor’s fate and steers clear of a Brexit course that antagonises his local members. Given his margin of victory and his public endorsement of Johnson’s platform, there is – for now, at least – little risk of that happening.
It’s a similar story in Canterbury, where Tory members also selected a new parliamentary candidate this evening. Anna Firth, who chaired Vote Leave’s Women for Britain in 2016, will attempt to win back a seat the Tories lost to Labour for the first time in its history by just 147 votes at the last election. Unlike most of her fellow travellers from the referendum campaign, she supported the withdrawal agreement, but has since enthusiastically endorsed Johnson. (“The students will loathe her,” sighs one Kent Tory of her general election chances.)
What do the selections tell us? Well, they strongly indicate that a general election is unlikely to provide an easy resolution to the Brexit impasse: the Conservative parliamentary party returned at the next election will contain more MPs with a strong personal and political incentive to toe whatever line Johnson and his supporters at the grassroots decree, and fewer like Boles. On current evidence, that will make the approval of a negotiated settlement by the Commons much less likely. As Labour and Tory members replace their defectors and retirees with candidates from either extreme of the Brexit debate, that problem can only become more acute.