Brexiters first, Conservatives second
For Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt however the most significant finding of the Yougov poll will be that a majority of the Conservative membership is prepared to envisage the destruction of the Conservative Party itself in the pursuit of Brexit. Johnson and Hunt know that this is no mere rhetorical flourish or random speculation, but a real possibility brought into the sharpest possible focus by the results of the European Elections. Any future Conservative leader deemed insufficiently zealous in the pursuit of Brexit faces the imminent danger of a final mass migration of the Conservative Party’s membership to the Brexit Party, for which many Conservative members voted on 23rd May. [...]
It is probable that both Hunt and Johnson are aware of the economic and political disruption a “no deal” Brexit will involve. For that reason, both of them have been careful to avoid direct advocacy of such a course. Instead, they have claimed to believe that their superior negotiating skills will enable the rapid renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement in such a way as to make it acceptable to Parliament and the Conservative Party before 31st October. Whether this is deliberate mendacity or crippling self-delusion can only be a matter for speculation. In any event, these hopes bear no relation to reality. [...]
If, as is likely but not entirely certain, Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in the last week of July, it is probable that he will be able to pass the month of August pretending to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. His supporters in the Conservative press will be happy to accept for at least a few weeks confected stories about divisions within the EU, fear in Ireland of a hard border and looming budgetary chaos for the EU caused by “no deal.” When Parliament reconvenes in early September however, this charade will have reached its natural conclusion. Both Johnson and MPs hostile to “no deal” will be confronted with important and painful decisions.
What will happen in September?
In early September, Johnson as Prime Minister will have three possible options for advancing his party’s existential agenda of leaving the EU by 31st October, first to represent the Withdrawal Agreement to Parliament and succeed in having it passed; second to call a General Election for mid-October; or third simply to await the advent of Brexit with “no deal” on 31st October, thus defying the majority of MPs hostile to such an outcome. There seems little prospect of being able to reverse the preceding Parliamentary majorities against a largely unchanged Withdrawal Agreement; and a General Election before Brexit has occurred would give an unwelcome political opportunity to the Brexit Party, which could expect to make enormous inroads into the Conservative vote as the purist advocate of “no deal.” For all its dangers in the longer term, Boris Johnson may well conclude in September that his best course of action is simply to await the end of the extension negotiated by his predecessor and hope that the impact of leaving the EU without an agreement is less catastrophic in the short term than has been predicted. In the best of cases from his point of view, it might even be possible to hold a General Election before the end of the year, in which the Brexit Party was in disarray, while the full negative impact of a “no deal” Brexit had yet to be felt.
Many of the opponents of “no deal” in the House of Commons are already making plans on the basis that Boris Johnson will opt to take the risks inherent in leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. Bizarrely, the main party of opposition, the Labour Party, is still mired in slow-moving internal controversy about Europe and seems content to take its cue from the minority of Conservative dissidents, on whom all political attention can be expected to focus in early September. While it is clear that many Conservative MPs are uneasy about the economic and political impact of “no deal,” different estimates exist of the number of these MPs willing to take radical action to prevent the outcome they fear. [...]
It is however precisely the fragmentary and divided nature of the potential Conservative opposition to him that gives Boris Johnson his best chance to ensure a “no deal” Brexit. Dominic Grieve has said publicly that he would be prepared to vote in a Vote of Confidence against a Conservative government pursuing “no deal.” Other Conservative MPs have excluded any such possibility. There is a danger that, lacking the votes to bring about a Vote of No Confidence, Conservatives hostile to “no deal” will find themselves limited to indirect and procedural manoeuvres to make it more difficult for the government to continue along this path without Parliamentary scrutiny. Such tactics were tried in the early months of this year with only limited success. [...]
A group of forty Conservative MPs renouncing the Conservative whip and acting unitedly in the House of Commons would be a formidable political force entirely capable of exerting real pressure on Boris Johnson’s government in the short term and equally capable of fighting a General Election later in the year as part of a “Remain” electoral pact. [...]It was the abandonment by the Conservative Party of its long-standing commitment to full British membership of the European Union that led directly to the impending national catastrophe of Brexit. It would be entirely appropriate the reversal of that historic error had its origin in the Conservative Party as well. Brexit has destroyed the traditional Conservative Party. The fight against Brexit can provide an opportunity for its renaissance as well.