They’ll never forgive Boris Johnson for getting Brexit done: They dress it up as high principle. But there’s only one reason so many pro-EU Tories revolted, writes STEPHEN ROBINSON
Let us be clear about one thing. The vast majority of the 148 Tory MPs who voted against the Prime Minister on Monday night could not really give a damn about their leader’s loose relationship with the truth.
They had already priced that in when they picked Boris Johnson in 2019 to bring an end to the agony of Theresa May’s depressing administration.
Nor, in truth, do they much care about Partygate – though some might have been offended that Boris’s uneaten birthday cake last year was decorated with Union Flag icing.
No. Instead, these Conservative MPs – a mixture of backbencher nobodies and household-name grandees – have far bigger policy fish to fry.
Boris Johnson (pictured yesterday) is trying to move on from the Tory confidence vote despite four in 10 MPs calling for him to quit
They, along with much of the media, senior civil servants, the judiciary and the rest of the great and the good – have never forgiven the Prime Minister for ‘Getting Brexit Done’. (Lest we forget, this meant carrying through on a policy that had been clearly adopted by a national referendum.)
For those who holiday in the Dordogne or Tuscany, buy kale at Waitrose and deplore ‘common’ neighbours who fly the flag of St George, Brexit was an unspeakable calamity.
And this sorry cohort, still unable after all these years to come to terms with the vote to leave the EU, sees destroying Boris as a necessity.
Yesterday, as the Prime Minister picked through the political wreckage left by Monday evening’s damaging rebellion, unreconciled Remainers woke up to find they had a home again.
Boris Johnson was warned last night that he needs to cut taxes to save his job as he urged Tory MPs to ‘draw a line’ under the revolt against his leadership
The pro-EU mob within the Tory pary have been subtly laying the ground for months in anticipation of this week’s vote. Now their counter-revolution has begun in earnest.
Brexit, thought to have been settled after years of rancorous public debate, is now back in play as politicians of all stripes talk openly of ‘realignment’ with the EU. Only this week, Sir Keir Starmer boasted that Labour would negotiate a ‘better deal’ with the EU if it wins the next election.
You have to give this lot credit for one thing: they play a long game.
But most disgracefully of all, the issue has reared its head again thanks to a faction of Conservative MPs who owe their 80-seat majority, won just two-and-a-half years ago, to the man who made delivering Brexit his central manifesto promise.
That’s gratitude for you. Some would say it amounts to the great irony of early 21st-century British politics. But I would cast it more as an outrage – and a ruinously self-destructive betrayal.
On the evidence of this week’s vote, spearheaded as it was by a Remain wing of the ruling political party, it is clear that too many Tories have lost their bearings and their common sense.
So where did it start? I remember being struck by the choice of words of arch-Remainer Michael Heseltine, talking on Sky News early this year.
Heseltine’s standing as a Tory grandee is unaffected by his palpable sense of grievance at failing to replace Margaret Thatcher as party leader all those years ago, despite serial acts of disloyalty.
Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, announces that Boris Johnson has survived an attempt by Tory MPs to oust him as party leader at 9pm last night
With a studied, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, his Lordship averred that recent allegations of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street might ‘open a can of worms’, leading to Brexit being reversed. ‘Never give up!’ he declared as recently as last November.
Heseltine’s contributions were early Remainer salvos, and now make sense as part of the broader campaign. Only a moral reprobate could be in favour of Brexit, so – in Heseltine’s mind – it is our solemn duty to bring the Prime Minister down, and Brexit with him.
This baton was picked up shortly before Monday’s vote by Tobias Ellwood MP, a recalcitrant Tory Remainer with the air of a man who worries he is not taken as seriously as he should be.
In an intriguingly timed interview, Ellwood lamented the problems that businesses were experiencing over red tape and the Northern Ireland protocol. He suggested soothingly that Britain should rejoin the EU’s single market.
This was presented as a sensible, old-fashioned Conservative policy tweak rather than what it really was: a screeching handbrake-turn on our settled political and economic future.
That’s not all. Hours before Monday’s dramatic vote of confidence in the PM, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt declared himself almost the last rat to leave the listing Johnsonian ship, saying he would vote for ‘change’.
Hunt, of course, lost crushingly in the run-off against Boris as Tory leader in 2019. Back then, he attributed his defeat to his support for Remain as a ‘hurdle we were never able to overcome’. This time around, he appears to feel more lucky. It was striking that one of the most ubiquitous MPs to appear on the airwaves in the run up to the vote was Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet in Kent since 1983.
Sir Roger has the air of a proper shire Tory, and one who only reluctantly has turned against Boris Johnson. But in fact, though he has downplayed it in recent years, he too is an arch-Remainer, which explains why the BBC is quick to turn to him.
The list goes on: before the referendum, Tory MP Andrew Mitchell bemoaned Britain ‘turning our backs on the strategic foundation stone’ of the EU. His parliamentary colleague Stephen Hammond claimed in 2019 that ‘no deal would be a catastrophe for the country’. Steve Brine, the member for Winchester, opposed the Government over legislation for a no-deal Brexit. All are known to have voted against Boris in this week’s contest.
There are many other Tory MPs who were once vocal in their opposition to Brexit, but who have gone quiet in recent years when they feared the matter was settled. Now they are finding their voice again.
We are seeing before our eyes the re-assembling of the Establishment coalition of Left-wing Tories, Right and centre-Left Labourites and Lib Dems: all united by their undying devotion to the Remainer cause.
Knowing how badly it plays in Leave-supporting ‘Red Wall’ seats, Sir Keir Starmer had shut down the Brexit debate within the Labour Party. But mark my words: that will change.
Apart from transgender rights, there is no issue the Labour leadership cares more deeply about than rejoining the EU. Their silence on the matter in recent years has been pragmatic, not ideological.
In recent council elections, Labour has campaigned as if it were already in a de facto electoral pact with the Lib Dems, whose very existence is now predicated on reversing Brexit.
There was traditional banging of tables after the PM thanked his team for supporting him during the confidence battle
More of the same can be expected in the two by-elections in Devon and West Yorkshire later this month, where predicted Tory defeats will be used to undermine both Boris’s administration and Brexit itself.
If we add to the mix the fanatically Remainer Scottish National Party lending their votes to an anti-Tory coalition in Westminster at the next general election, we can clearly see the outlines of a long-term Conservative shut-out from government – and the gradual dilution, if not outright reversal, of a policy measure that enjoyed a clear majority and the support of more than 17.4 million people.
For the broad Left, reversing Brexit thus becomes part of a wider scheme to eviscerate the Conservatives as the natural party of government.
Boris Johnson is low in the water now, and this week’s rebellion will have stung. But having known him as a colleague for over 30 years, I suspect he will confound critics who say he will be out by the autumn.
He will regard the Tory rebels with utter contempt: as a lightweight gang of time-servers unable to organise the proverbial booze-up in a brewery – or for that matter in a workplace garden.
Anyone who does not wish to turn back the clock six years to a stale and rancid rerun of the Brexit debate had better hope Boris recovers his vim and vigour. Because otherwise the future is grim.
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