The government’s majority this evening fell just a little more, as Caroline Spelman joined the rebels to vote in favour of legislation forcing an extension to the Brexit deadline. This latest defeat, 329 in favour of the bill and 300 against, was not a surprise in itself. But it is interesting that Spelman, who backed the government last night, has decided that she should turn against it today.
However, government sources are saying that she will not lose the party whip like her colleagues who rebelled yesterday. The vote on taking control of the Order Paper last night was treated as a confidence issue, hence the round of expulsions. All those ex-Tory MPs report being treated with some brutality by their former party machine, clearly underlining that this isn’t supposed to be a temporary suspension of the whip. Today, though, Spelman and Tory peers who vote for the legislation will be given different treatment.
This might be as a result of nerves in the wider party about the way last night’s rebels have been treated. Some of those nerves spilled into the debate today, with Brexiteer Sir Edward Leigh being particularly critical of what had happened. He called the expulsion of his colleagues a ‘purge’, and warned that the problem with this kind of action was that ‘when you purge one group of people, you may have to purge another group when for example trying to push a deal through parliament’. Damian Green similarly spoke up for the MPs who had lost the whip.
Boris Johnson and those around him might not care too much about the loss of Conservatives who would have made the party’s majority after the next election hollow. But the next few days are critical for the Prime Minister if he wants to retain the respect of his remaining Conservative colleagues, many of whom want to support him but are in shock after last night’s events.