After the government confirmed James’s story that any Tory MPs who rebel in a Brexit vote this week will have the whip withdrawn and be unable to stand as a Conservative at the next election, anti-no deal MPs find themselves in a dilemma. No 10’s aim is to present them with a simple choice: Johnson or Corbyn, making clear that the wrong decision will be career-ending. A number have been dissuaded from joining efforts tomorrow to legislate against no deal. Others – including David Gauke and Rory Stewart – appear to be holding firm.
However, whatever happens this week with the votes, the dilemma for the anti-no deal Tories will remain much the same. The Conservative party under Johnson is set on a path that many cannot reconcile with their Brexit views. Johnson’s aim – with the help of his senior aide Dominic Cummings – is to reunite the Leave vote to win a majority at the next election – whether it’s in a few weeks or a few months. Even if MPs manage to legislate against a no-deal Brexit, Johnson will try to ignore it, and if need be aim for a general election on a manifesto to leave the EU – deal or no deal.
That idea is so toxic to some would-be rebels that talks are under way for a group of about 20 MPs to form a breakout party and stand as independent Conservatives. Other Tory MPs have lost the will to fight and are considering simply not seeking re-election.
An ideological change is taking place across government and in the wider party. One former minister refers to it as ‘a Vote Leave takeover’. Current ministers see it as where the Tory party should have been the past two years. Many of those who worked on the leave campaign in the EU referendum now reside in Downing Street, but the growing Vote Leave influence extends well beyond. Aides who have found to be insufficiently committed to no deal have been blocked from returning to government. In Cummings’s weekly meetings with aides, you’re as likely to hear a no-deal Tory sceptic like Dominic Grieve or Philip Hammond criticised as you are a Labour politician.
The shift in focus – to deliver Brexit by ‘any means necessary’ – reflects the electoral strategy. The voters Johnson and Cummings are prioritising in any early election are different from those David Cameron aimed for in 2015. The focus is on those who voted leave in the EU referendum. The first priority is to reunite the leave vote from the referendum and kill off the Brexit party. The seats the Tories would target are areas that voted heavily to leave – many of which are Labour/Tory marginals. The Liberal Democrats are viewed as a bigger concern for Labour – eating into the pro-EU vote. Retiring opponents of no deal – such as Nick Boles – are being replaced by devoted advocates of it – and those who backed remain initially tend to stress a shift in position.
It follows that the question that Brexit critics in the Tory party need to answer is whether this is still the party for them. Among the group of no deal rebels there are some who are opposed to any form of Brexit and others who are only opposed to leaving without a deal. What ever happens with the votes this week, the general direction of the Tory party is not going to change.