Nick Boles’ deselection will affect more than just the future of the Tories

If the Grantham and Stamford MP is ousted, then other Tory Remainers will likely follow. That could have profound implications for what the next parliament looks like. 

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Tory members in Grantham and Stamford last night voted to begin a process that could result in the deselection of Nick Boles, the Cameroon MP leading the Commons push for a Norway-style Brexit, as their election candidate. What happens next?

Boles, who has suggested he would rather resign the Conservative whip and vote against the government in a confidence motion than support a no-deal Brexit, has three weeks to give his constituency association notice of his intention to run under the Tory banner at the next election. Accused of “going rogue” by his local critics, Boles has dismissed the campaign as “bullying” and says he will fight any effort to oust him.

Assuming he does reply to his local party’s request in the affirmative, its executive will vote on whether it wants him as a candidate. To avoid deselection, Boles must win a majority or, failing that, a majority of the 500-strong local membership as a whole (either in a postal ballot or a vote on a new shortlist of candidates).

Boles struck a sanguine tone in the wake of last night’s news, but his chances of survival do not look great. What happens next will be an instructive test case.

A fact seldom noted is that it is much easier to deselect a Conservative MP than it is a Labour one (under the opposition’s arcane system of trigger ballots, 33 per cent of a constituency party’s branches must demand a selection contest first). It also happens more often: no Labour MP has been deselected since 2010, while two Tories have.

If Boles wins, then he will have demonstrated that a Tory membership with a supposedly monomaniacal fixation on a hard Brexit are unwilling to use straightforward rules to oust an MP whose local party leadership dislike him not just politically but personally (Grantham and Stamford’s association chair, Philip Sagar, has essentially described Boles as a carpetbagger). 

That would indicate that the dozen or so Conservative MPs that senior Eurosceptics say are in similar trouble with their members - namely outspoken Remainers like Dominic Grieve, Heidi Allen, Antoinette Sandbach, Sam Gymiah, Guto Bebb, Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee – have a better chance of holding on than their ideological isolation on Brexit would appear to suggest.

But in the event that Boles is defeated, at least some of those MPs whose desire for a second referendum is even further from most Tory members than his preference for a soft Brexit will be deselected before the next election. The depth and intensity of grassroots feeling on Brexit means that, unlike in 2017 – when Theresa May intervened to save Heidi Allen – representations from on high are unlikely to save them, if they are forthcoming at all. 

The inescapable result would be a slate of new Tory candidates whose views on Brexit bore much closer resemblance to those held by the party grassroots: a preference for the hardest possible deal or none at all. That would make the job of building a consensus in parliament for a negotiated settlement on the UK’s future relationship even harder for a Conservative prime minister than it currently is. Nick Boles’ fate won’t just tell us where the Tory Party is going, but the country.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.