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A great betrayal: the deepening divisions within the Conservative Party

The new prime minister is despised by many of those Tory MPs who now publicly support him. Can he command a party that is so bitterly split?

It says much for the divisiveness Boris Johnson has already inflicted on the Conservative Party that, even before his election this week, groups of his MPs were discussing scenarios for getting rid of him. One, that they should immediately engineer another leadership election – it takes just 47 of them to do that – had such traction for a while that Johnson’s supporters briefed the press that they would seek to have the rules changed so he could not face such a challenge within a year of his first being elected. It won’t happen: even if he were challenged again the mass membership that has installed him this time would install him again, and until it did he would carry on as the Queen’s first minister regardless.

Others, in an equally straw-clutching gesture, pointed out that just because Theresa May is no longer leader of the Conservative Party, there was nothing to prevent her continuing as prime minister. This would be a reverse of events in 1940, when Neville Chamberlain remained leader of the party while Winston Churchill, whose posthumous reputation has probably never suffered so much as by his becoming Johnson’s apparent role model, led the nation. When the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized a British oil tanker on 19 July some MPs – not all of them Johnson’s enemies – began to ask the important question about how he would handle a tense, and possibly grave, international security situation, not just because of his frivolous character but also because of how the Cameron and May administrations have run down the armed forces. It is at such a time that a Churchill figure could come in useful – but people are about to become aware that, despite the publicity to the contrary, Johnson is, mirabile dictu (as he would doubtless say) no Churchill.

Alan Duncan, having pre-emptively resigned from the Foreign Office, even tried to persuade the Speaker of the Commons to allow a motion ratifying (or not) confidence in Johnson as party leader. He failed. The only feasible means of removing Johnson in short order – before he even, as Martin Fletcher points out elsewhere in this issue, reaches George Canning’s mere 119 days as prime minister – would be for him to be defeated in a vote of confidence. With rumours swirling that there might be defections of Tory MPs to the Lib Dems, or resignations of the whip, constitutional experts were wondering whether Johnson would be able to form a government, or whether the Queen would even be advised to send for him. Such a constitutional crisis could be resolved only by a general election, and quickly. As was evident after the recent Tory rebellion on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, to approve a Lords amendment that would make it harder for Johnson to prorogue parliament in the autumn, there is a sizeable number of Tory MPs who seem to be ready to take the nuclear option. This group is big enough to bring down a Johnson administration by abstaining in a vote of confidence, never mind actually voting against their party.

Almost all are jointly motivated by a detestation of Johnson and deep-rooted opposition to a no-deal: they exemplify the divisions in the parliamentary party, and seem to defy any leader – Johnson or a putative successor – to heal them. Some say all that is missing is an organised faction in the Labour Party with which to effect a government of national unity, killing two birds – Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – with one stone. The prospect of Corbyn in Downing Street is enough, it seems, to prevent all but two or three anti-Johnson fanatics voting against their party – but even a few may be enough.

The kamikaze squad is not so big as last week’s rebellion and abstention might suggest. Philip Hammond, viscerally opposed to no-deal and heading off to the back benches, may have refused to rule out voting against his party, and others seem certain to follow – particularly Remainers who are not standing again or are in the process of being deselected, and therefore have little to lose. But one of Johnson’s most bitter opponents told me that “much as I hate the idea of him being leader… if he’s elected leader, we have to give him a chance”.

Some have gone further. Amber Rudd, apparently desperate to retain her cabinet seat, suddenly became reconciled to a no-deal Brexit – or, as Nick Boles beautifully put it, to being driven home by Johnson provided it was in a ministerial limo, an allusion to an attack she made on Johnson during the 2016 referendum campaign. Such is the psychological state of the Tory party, among opponents of Johnson whose ambition and sense of entitlement are almost as large as his, that the most abject acts of humiliation become routine, if not brazen.

It would be rash, though, to take the onset of unity for granted. The parliamentary party is divided and the divisions are not so simple as outsiders might imagine. Many former Remainers did a Rudd some time ago and decided to support Johnson, their ambition trumping anything that might hitherto have impersonated principle. A few Brexiteers, led by Liam Fox, couldn’t suspend disbelief and support Johnson. These MPs tend to know him too well, and to abominate his dishonesty, frivolity and moral cowardice; such views are unlikely to change.

A few Remainers are irreconcilable to the idea of Johnson and what he purports to stand for; even before Hammond’s warning, one of his most hard-line opponents in the Commons told me: “I won’t vote against my party in a vote of confidence, but I know a few people who I suspect will.” That may be an exaggeration; but if Johnson’s no-deal rhetoric continues, there are deeply ideological Remainers who would almost certainly at least abstain, and possibly vote against their own party, if a vote of confidence were argued on the basis of avoiding a no-deal.

Johnson’s dishonesty would suggest that if it is “do or die”, someone else will be lined up to do the dying if the alternative is the end of his time in office. But if he does carry out no deal, or refuse to request a further extension, then tribal Conservative Party loyalties that have broadly held since after the party’s shameful performance over the Corn Laws almost 175 years ago will start to break down.

Johnson has become a catalyst for an unprecedented outbreak of internecine loathing among members of the parliamentary party. The losing faction in the leadership contest, motivated by a personal dislike of Johnson and of his supposed policies, harbour intense resentments – not just about him, but about those who have supported him despite either their opposition to Brexit or their long-standing convictions about his lack of probity. A roll of infamy has been prepared among some of those whose opposition to him remains unwavering. If the Johnson regime comes a cropper and takes the Conservative Party with it, those who have reversed their opinion to support him will find themselves not just unforgiven, but quite possibly unforgiveable.

There is amazement, notably, that Matt Hancock, the Remainer Health Secretary, should have pledged himself to Johnson, an act that has invited almost unlimited contempt from his former admirers. Nor can people understand why Robert Buckland, the Prisons Minister and a long-time EU supporter, put himself behind Johnson: even ambition seems an insufficient reason for his volte-face. The reputation of Gavin Williamson, who acted as the whip on Johnson’s campaign having three years ago supported May explicitly to stop Johnson, has taken a beating. Williamson will no doubt receive favour from the new prime minister, his recent sacking for leaking secrets easily brushed aside by an administration with questionable moral foundations. What political career he enjoys subsequently may not, if some of his colleagues have any say in the matter, be especially distinguished.

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To those who have refused to support Johnson, his endorsement by those hitherto known to be antipathetic to him is regarded as an appalling betrayal. Equally, there were some Brexiteers for whom, by reason of their probity and honesty, Remainers had personal respect. In the case of Iain Duncan Smith, who became chairman of Johnson’s campaign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who led the European Reform Group into Johnson’s tent, that respect has now been forfeited. To begin with, such personal differences may be concealed by opponents of Johnson who do not wish to provoke constituency activists who have largely voted for him; but these divisions are so deep and inflammatory that the honeymoon is likely to be short, for the slightest provocation could end it.

The other threat to Johnson and to any semblance of unity is that some of the bigger fish in the May cabinet – notably Hammond and David Gauke, the outgoing Lord Chancellor – can command instant media attention when they seek to articulate their opposition to him, and they will.

However, for all the determination of such people to prevent Johnson from engineering a no-deal exit, there are potential obstacles beyond their control. It may not be up to parliament to decide whether there is a no-deal. Johnson created the impression in his campaign that there will be a re-negotiation that will either lead to the EU rolling over or to the government unilaterally announcing that the UK is off on 31 October, come what may. That one of the many questions Johnson refused to answer in his below-the-parapet campaign was whether he would resign if he failed to meet the deadline suggests that he jolly well won’t – if, indeed, he is still prime minister then.

Faced with the prospect of his premiership being aborted by a parliamentary threat to obstruct a no-deal, Johnson may perhaps leap out of the path of the Brussels bulldozer and beg his fellow heads of government to grant an extension. Should one of them veto that, Britain leaves without a deal. Things can and indeed may well change, but the present rhetoric is that someone will cast such a veto out of annoyance at the EU being trifled with by the United Kingdom.

How long the Johnson regime will last is anyone’s guess. Apart from the barely concealed dislike of him among a notable minority of his MPs, there is his temperamental unsuitability for national leadership, and how quickly evidence of it will cause some of his supporters to waver. When interviewed by Andrew Neil he displayed his inattention to detail and, probably worse, the ease with which he becomes rattled and aggressive when people cease finding him funny or he cannot joke his way out of a corner.

Being prime minister when you’ve made commitments on Brexit you may struggle to keep while holding on to your much-coveted job could alone prove a tall order. Add to that spending promises you can’t uphold, tensions mounting in the Gulf, and a parliamentary party whose new-found devotion to you could well evaporate as swiftly as it was amassed – not least because you can’t give all of your 160 parliamentary supporters a job – and matters could quickly become rather nasty, even during a recess. The look of apparent fear that occasionally manifested itself in Johnson’s eyes in the closing days of his campaign suggests that even he will struggle to lie to himself about the realities for much longer.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation