Johnson threat to kick out rebel Tories will backfire

by Hugo Dixon | 02.09.2019

Conservative MPs who defy the prime minister in this week’s key votes in Parliament will be heroes. Other Tories will feel queasy about the persecution of their colleagues. The Rebel Alliance’s ranks will swell. In short, Boris Johnson’s extreme tactics look like they will again backfire.

The prime minister has chickened out of a meeting with potential Tory rebels this morning – cancelling the showdown at the last minute. Instead, he offered to meet just one of them, Philip Hammond – an offer that was rejected. Johnson also sent in his heavy brigade of whips to warn the rebels that they would be expelled from the party if they vote this week to force him to delay Brexit.

It may be that these hardline tactics will bully a few weaker souls into submission. But it seems to have stiffened most of their spines. When a journalist tweeted last night that Hammond, David Gauke and Dominic Grieve would have the whip withdrawn, Rory Stewart replied: “And me too I hope.”

Being a rebel is a badge of honour. They have the moral high ground. Not only are they putting the national interest above personal advancement. Johnson’s actions are hypocritical. He after all twice defied Theresa May by voting against her Brexit deal, but wasn’t kicked out of the Tory party. Many Cabinet members have also been massively disloyal in the past.

Even some Tory Brexiters are unhappy at the brutal treatment of their colleagues. Charles Walker, acting co-chair of the backbench Conservative 1922 committee, told the Telegraph that “purging good Conservatives” was “extremely unpleasant” and “must be resisted”.

What’s more, not everybody is happy with the lurch to the far right. Nor are they all happy to destroy the economy and potentially the unity of the UK by crashing out of the EU without a deal. Not everybody is happy that Johnson is playing fast and loose with democracy either – and may even break the law if MPs force him to ask for extra time. These are hardly small-c conservative things to do.

It’s vital that the embryonic Remain Alliance – between the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru – welcomes these brave Tories with open arms. If there is a snap election, most will want to stand as independent Conservatives. The Remain Alliance should make them a central part of their campaign. They should not stand against them and should encourage their activists to campaign on their behalf.

The quid pro quo is that these independent Tories should encourage voters who normally back the Conservative Party to vote against the party if there’s an election before Brexit. There are potentially millions of such voters who do not want Johnson’s vision. If he reacts by forming a pact of the devil with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, sensible Tory voters will be disgusted and could listen to a clarion call from the independent Conservatives to vote for somebody else.

But doesn’t all this play into Johnson’s hands? Couldn’t he be goading his MPs to rebel – with the idea that he would then say that, since he no longer has a majority, there should be an election? And mightn’t he win such a vote and get a mandate for a most extreme form of Brexit?

Maybe, maybe and maybe. But MPs don’t have to fall for this. Johnson can only call a snap election if two-thirds of MPs agree. They should refuse to do so until and unless he first delays Brexit. 

That means passing the law this week to force the prime minister to ask for extra time – and Johnson then going off to Brussels to get a delay. By the time he’s done that, Parliament will have been suspended. The only way he’ll be able to get MPs to agree to a snap election will be by advising the Queen to recall it.

The great guru of nonviolent action, Gene Sharp, spoke about the effectiveness of “political jiujitsu” – turning the aggressive energy of an opponent against it. We can do the same with Johnson.

2 Responses to “Johnson threat to kick out rebel Tories will backfire”

  • Good article, lifting the mood to see MP’s with spines coming into action. Still hope to see the UK saved by those people, we need them badly. Too bad that no one will take Brexiteer MP’s to account for the misery they foisted upon the UK and how they endangered the union. Never mind how they made Continental taxpayers having to foot bills costing billions to deal with the mess created by English conservatives of a certain political persuasion. And what damage that did to the standing of the Banana Kingdom formerly called the United Kingdom.