Is Boris Johnson splitting the Tory party?
With Tory grandees expelled from the Conservative party and the government at loggerheads with the Commons where it no longer has a majority, the FT's Miranda Green and Robert Shrimsley discuss whether this was part of prime minister Boris Johnson's plans for delivering his 'do or die' Brexit
Filmed by Nicola Stansfield and Bianca Wakeman. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis
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So another extraordinary week in British politics, perhaps the most extraordinary yet. Robert, is this a plan? Boris Johnson has hurtled at great speed towards a confrontation with parliament, and now perhaps a general election as well. Is this actually part of the strategy, or is this the unravelling of a premiership in its first few days of being in charge?
The answer could be yes, I think.
There definitely was a plan, and the plan was exactly as you're describing, to bring the confrontation with parliament to a head. The team Johnson recognised that parliament was going to vote to stop them having a no-deal Brexit. It was going to legislate. The prorogation wasn't going to do the job. They also were aware that the prorogation of parliament might actually heighten the confrontation, which suited them. They could have a people versus parliament election. You people are stopping Brexit, we're going to the country because we trust you. And that was a strategy. And you can see the logic of it.
What's happened in the last few days is the unravelling of that strategy in a couple of different ways. Firstly, he threatened to expel any of his MPs that voted against him. More of them did than he expected. And sometimes they even provoked him. Dominic Cummings, his chief strategist, was incredibly dismissive and rude to some of the key figures who voted against the government. And you know, really eminent people. Philip Hammond, former chancellor, Greg Clark, Kenneth Clarke. These are senior people in the Conservative party and they have been expelled.
People who've been in the cabinet a matter of weeks ago in very senior positions.
That's right. And with the proximity of a general election, taking the party whip away from them is tantamount to expelling them and deselecting them. And what you're saying to the country is there is no room in the Conservative party for some of the best-known figures and some of the most mainstream figures. And furthermore, since one of your arguments against Jeremy Corbyn is that he is an extremist who expels and purges his moderates, that line doesn't look so good, either.
The second reason it's beginning to become complicated, is because Labour has tumbled to this strategy and is saying, well, maybe we're not going to give you the election when you want and on the terms you want. So all of a sudden, Boris Johnson's strategy is beginning to look very precarious. It's not definitely unravelling yet, because I think there's still a decent chance Labour will give him the election. But it's not guaranteed.
And what about this idea that this might be the final coming to fruition of the schism that's kind of been threatened in the Conservative party under successive Tory prime ministers, really, that Europe is the kind of rock on which the Tory party finally founders? Because you've now got dozens of Tory MPs potentially, as you said, deselected to make room for much more extremely anti-Europeans. What happens to the rest of the Tory party that's been told it's not welcome?
It's a really interesting question. I mean, obviously, at one level, schism is fractionally too strong because you're talking about quite a small sliver of the Conservative party. The Conservative party's been moving ever rightwards for quite a long time. So there is a fair degree of unity of purpose around the Brexit position that they have among party members and among the bulk of the parliamentary party, which is not the same as saying among Conservative voters, of course.
But the party, while it looks divided at this minute, there is a degree of unity and a purpose there. They are now the lead party. They are possibly the Brexit party. And so they've completed... and they're also changing their electoral base, because a lot of the well-heeled southern, more metropolitan, liberal-minded Conservatives are looking at this and thinking, well, hang on, this isn't us. And they have this northern strategy of chasing votes in working class areas in the north, some of the smaller towns, people who have voted Labour but are very patriotic, don't like Jeremy Corbyn, and they think they can get those people. But it's a hell of a gamble.
And what has opened up, as - I mean, you'll know this - opened up right in the centre of politics now is a huge space between Corbynism and Johnson, Brexitism. There's a large gap for a party, if it's able to fill it.
But there's also a schism in the Johnson clan.
Yes, absolutely. Boris's brother Jo, his younger brother, who was a minister, just outside the cabinet but with a right to attend cabinet, has today announced that he is standing down from parliament, standing down as a minister, citing the fact that he has been unable to resolve the conflict between family loyalty and national interest, which is not very coded way of saying I can't put up with what my brother's doing any longer.
And what about if we do have an imminent general election earlier than is scheduled? Do you think you'll actually see something very unusual, which is a kind of pro-Brexit pact on one side and a kind of mirror image pro-Remain or stop no-deal alliance on the other? Because the numbers are so tight and there's a danger of just ending up with another hung parliament which of course wouldn't resolve Brexit at all unless it's really clear what the two options are.
Yeah. I mean, I think anybody who wants to call the general election should immediately be dismissed because I certainly don't know how it will play out. You can construct different theories about this, but a hung parliament is certainly one of the more plausible options. As to the pact, well, I don't know. I think the Conservative party leadership would very much like not to have a pact with the Brexit party, Nigel Farage. They would prefer just to shove them aside and squeeze their vote. And I think if they think they can do that, that will be their preferred option.
If the election is held before the Brexit date, the Brexit party has a major question to face, which is do we want to risk Brexit by stopping the Conservatives from winning. On the Remain side, more difficult, because I think the diverse parties of Remain are finding it very difficult to work together. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, has said she couldn't put Jeremy Corbyn into power. So that's tricky. The Labour party is not a party which is minded to stand aside for other parties anywhere. The Scottish Nationalists and SNP, because they are independence movement parties, are problematic for the other two parties.
So, I can see a few side deals on the Remain side, perhaps between the Greens and the Lib Dems, maybe Plaid Cymru and Lib Dems, I can see that happening. But on a full-on...
The Greens are quite relaxed about Jeremy Corbyn because they're more leftwing anyway.
Exactly right. So I can see smaller pacts, but I can't see a grand Remain alliance. What is, however, possible is the voters can figure this out for themselves. And they can look at where things lie, and say the best Remain choice here is Labour or Lib Dems or whoever. The one other wrinkle in this is that Labour's own position on Brexit is complex in that it is offering a referendum while saying it will also seek a better Brexit deal. So it's in the rather strange position of saying we will seek a better deal, we will get our better deal, and then we'll have a referendum on it with the other option being Remain. And we're not sure which side of that we'll campaign on. So for the moment, there is still a fair amount of daylight between them and, say, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists, who are out and out Remain parties now.
And of course, Labour will be hoping that, in fact, the election turns into being fought on other topics where they're stronger anyway. But all we can say probably is it's all looking extremely volatile.