Is Boris Johnson playing a game of chicken with anti-no-deal Tory MPs? The two sides are locked in a furious standoff over the threat from the Prime Minister that MPs will lose the Tory whip and be prevented from standing for the party at the next election if they back this week’s rebel legislation blocking no deal. That threat, first reported by James Forsyth, might have caused one or two MPs to back down, but it has made others, including Rory Stewart and David Gauke, more defiant. They are insisting that they will vote for the extension legislation this week, even if it means they stop being Conservatives.
The point of a game of chicken is that at some point, the loser veers away. Boris Johnson and his top adviser Dominic Cummings take chicken very seriously, as we can see from the way they are approaching negotiations with the European Union (if you haven’t read Tom Chivers’ piece on chicken and game theory, you really should). Their insistence on taking no deal totally seriously is designed to show that they are prepared to keep driving all the way. The hope is that the EU will yield. But if not, Britain will, they hope, be ready to exit without an agreement.
The game Johnson is playing with his MPs is slightly different. He is daring the rebels to back the bill, not in the hope that he never has to carry out his threat, but with the expectation that he will. This would have the – hugely dramatic – effect of dealing with the Tory split on Europe by removing one side of the split from the equation. This is something some of the Brexiteers around Johnson relish. It would allow the party to campaign clearly on Brexit in an election, which is growing more likely by the minute. If the rebels do not leave, they will have to work out how to campaign on a manifesto that they do not agree with. As one of Johnson’s allies put it to me, ‘the whole point of the past few days has been to say to the Remainers that “you guys are heading out of your seats”‘.
This would be a big departure from the way Tory leaders have approached their party over the past few decades. It’s a big departure from the way any leader manages a party, for that matter. There is always a need to try to keep the broad church meeting in the same building, even if not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. The decisions that David Cameron and Theresa May took when it came to calling a referendum and then not making any decisions for three years about how to implement its result were all based around the need to keep the Conservative party together. Now, Johnson appears to be taking the precious Ming vase of the Tory party, and happily breaking off chunks.