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10 March 2020

The Huawei rebellion provides Boris Johnson with a reminder of his political mortality

The Prime Minister faces two problems: the first is one of his own creation, the second plagues every occupant of No 10.

By Stephen Bush

Thirty eight Conservative MPs today defied the whip to seek greater assurances on limiting the role of Huawei in building 5G – bringing the government perilously close to its first defeat of this parliament. 

The coalition of dissent spans the Tory party’s various Brexit traditions. But what unites them is perhaps more important than what divides them: they are either former cabinet ministers or men elected in 2015 and 2017 who have never held ministerial office.

As John Major famously said when explaining why he wouldn’t simply sack his eurosceptic ministers, rebellions against his government originated from two sources: the dispossessed, that is to say, sacked former ministers, and the never-possessed, that is to say, those who had never held office and feared they never would under Major.

This is a rebellion that very much comes from the same place – with the striking exception of Anthony Mangnall, the newly-elected MP for Totnes, a former special adviser and usually the kind of person we wouldn’t expect to be brave enough to rebel this early on in their parliamentary career. David Davis, Damian Green and Iain Duncan Smith have all held cabinet rank and have no desire to do so in the future. Esther McVey was sacked from the cabinet in the last reshuffle. Then you have MPs who are at or near retirement age, and therefore have less to fear from rebellion.

But the more alarming group, from a Downing Street perspective, are the remainder of the rebels, who are all male MPs first elected in 2015 and 2017. That group, as I explained in greater detail a few days ago, are increasingly convinced that they are doomed to be overlooked in favour of women and the 2019 intake. That Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary and the lead minister on Huawei, is one of the rare men from the 2015 intake to have made the cabinet, makes him a subject of considerable resentment. Coupled with, as Patrick notes, a poor parliamentary performance by Dowden, the whole thing was something of a red rag to a bull.

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If you’re in Downing Street, you’ll reassure yourself that while this was a bad day in the office, ultimately, you can probably fix your man problem simply by bringing in a couple of 2015ers and 2017ers who are currently on the backbenches into the government, and that while there are many backbenchers with doubts about Huawei, the rebellion hasn’t spread beyond grandees and disillusioned male MPs. But the problem is that the latter group is only going to grow – and fixing it of course requires sacking people which creates more rebels.

It’s the illustration of something we’ve written since the general election: that while the government’s majority is large, it is not rebellion-proof, and the Conservatives would have to be astonishingly, remarkably lucky to go through the parliament without defeat. But it’s also an illustration of another truth, that if this government is not defeated externally it will eventually collapse internally, as those of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher did, thanks to the discontent of the dispossessed and the never-possessed.