The Johnson train is leaving the station and Tory MPs have decided it’s better to be in it than under it

Johnson’s biggest appeal to Conservative MPs is their belief that he offers them the best route to keeping their seats.

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Boris Johnson’s triumph was powered by selfies. In the formative stages of his leadership bid, before Theresa May had formally declared her exit, he quietly toured the country, visiting constituency associations and courting MPs, particularly those MPs first elected in 2015 and 2017 – who, with a few exceptions, Johnson had little relationship with.

The jaunts impressed MPs for two reasons. The fact that Johnson took the time and care to visit at all eased fears that he lacks the discipline or the organisation to run a major operation. And, more importantly, wherever Johnson went, his hosts saw their constituents bounding up to the former foreign secretary and asking for a picture to be taken with them. Although Johnson’s toxicity with the liberal voters who once propelled him to victory in London has barely been discussed in public, the suspicion that his powers have waned did worry some of the MPs who are now supporting him. That his visits to their constituencies were punctuated by requests for photo opportunities allayed those doubts, whether correctly or incorrectly, and revived what has long been Johnson’s biggest appeal to Conservative MPs: their belief that he offers them the best route to keeping their seats.

Johnson’s rivals were concerned with job security of a different kind: their places in the cabinet. Matt Hancock, during his brief tilt at the top job, talked up the need to pass a Brexit deal through the House of Commons (a not particularly veiled jab at Johnson) and the importance of winning over Liberal Democrat voters (an even less subtle reference to the parts of the electorate that find Johnson repulsive). But Hancock decided, roughly five minutes after his leadership bid came to an end, that the best remaining candidate in the field was one who had vowed to leave by 31 October, with a deal or without one, and was the least well-equipped to win back disgruntled liberals.

Hancock’s political proximity to George Osborne – who, as editor of the Evening Standard, has moved from being Johnson’s tormentor-in-chief to his cheerleader – added to the guffaws that his conversion provoked among MPs. One grandee described it as like “a negotiation among feudal lords”, with Hancock despatched as Osborne’s emissary. (Many MPs believe that Osborne is laying it on thick to secure the vacant role at the International Monetary Fund.) Adding to his discomfort, Hancock failed to bring most of his supporters with him and he has become the butt of frequent jokes among his fellow MPs.

To Hancock’s good fortune, his sense of discomfort is moving up the food chain. The latest cabinet minister to decide that she is better off trying to remain within Johnson’s tent rather than resisting from outside is Amber Rudd. At the start of the leadership election, Rudd formed a caucus, the One Nation group, with the express purpose of preventing a supporter of a no-deal Brexit becoming Conservative leader. Now her chosen candidate, Jeremy Hunt, has himself changed positions to support a no-deal Brexit in extremis, and Johnson, the certain victor, backs one as well. Rudd then compounded the humiliation by saying that she accepted that a no-deal Brexit had to be “part of the armoury” and that she was willing to serve in a government that would contemplate a no-deal Brexit.

Rudd’s readiness to abandon her opposition to no deal has been unfavourably compared to the continued resistance of Philip Hammond and David Gauke, who, like Rudd, were vocal opponents of no deal but unlike Rudd have kept the faith. Guto Bebb, who resigned junior ministerial office to oppose Brexit and will retire from the Commons at the next election rather than support Johnson as prime minister, branded Rudd’s move “absolutely disgraceful”, adding, “I’m surprised that my hill farmers have to pay the price to keep Amber in cabinet.”

Rudd’s position is uncomfortable and embarrassing. That she has found herself having to endorse no deal – and, essentially, the leadership of a politician who she once said couldn’t be trusted to drive someone home safely at the end of the night – is the single best demonstration of what a disaster the leadership election has been for Conservative pro-Europeans. Their most articulate candidate, Rory Stewart, failed to make the final stage of the contest. The group they founded to prevent no deal now looks more likely to facilitate it than to block it. And a committed Eurosceptic is set to win in a landslide.

But Rudd, and others like her, have a point. They have looked at the struggles of the Liberal Democrats to get a fair hearing from the press, and the short and disastrous life of Change UK, and have concluded that they are better off staying within a big political party. They see that the most outspoken Conservative MPs, such as Dominic Grieve, are at risk of deselection. They have concluded that, thanks to our electoral system, there is little hope of surviving outside the Conservative Party – but the price of survival is silence. The Johnson train is leaving the station and it is better to be in it than under it.

The calculation is ethically grubby but it isn’t necessarily wrong strategically. It may well be that first-past-the-post means that,  despite their multiple problems, our two big parties survive in their dominant form into the future. But where Rudd and co are going wrong is not in trying to stay within their party but in neglecting the damage a no-deal Brexit could do to their political aims.

These are MPs who believe that a no-deal Brexit will shatter the British economy and endanger the United Kingdom. The obvious consequence of that would be to finish off the Conservative Party. There is no point in fighting so hard to stay inside a train that is heading full speed over the cliff. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer