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Rebel Tories Worry Brexit May Have Bounced Wavering MPs Into Saving Boris Johnson

3 min read

Tory MPs who voted to oust Boris Johnson are split over how the result of the confidence vote was affected by a leading rebel calling for the UK to rejoin the European Union's single market.

Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence Committee, last week ignited a fresh Brexit row within the Conservative party by calling on the government to pursue closer economic ties with the EU.

Writing for The House, the MP for Bournemouth East said replicating Norway's relationship with the EU and rejoining the single market would boost the economy and help abate the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

The former minister argued that the move would help exporting businesses that are "strangled" by post-Brexit red tape and resolve the protracted Northern Ireland Protocol stand-off "at a stroke". The way Brexit has turned out was not how most of the public had "imagined" it, he argued.

However, while the intervention was praised by former Conservative MPs like David Gauke, the ex-justice secretary, there was a conspicuous absence of support for Ellwood among serving MPs who have historically been sympathetic to the argument. 

One rebel Conservative MP said the timing of Ellwood's proposal was "appalling" and claimed that it cost the campaign to get rid of Johnson the support of up to a dozen MPs when votes were cast on Monday evening.

While the vote of confidence in Johnson was only confirmed on Monday morning, speculation that it would take place had mounted throughout the previous week, when Ellwood's article dropped. The prime minister ultimately won the vote but by a narrow margin, with 148 Conservative MPs – or 41% of the parliamentary party – voting to get rid of him. 

Another Tory rebel said Ellwood "was warned that it was not thought through" and agreed that his challenge to current Brexit arrangements convinced a handful of wavering Conservative MPs to vote in favour of the prime minister. 

Pro-Brexit figures within the Tory party appeared to seize up on the comments in defence of Johnson's leadership. Lord Frost, who served as the UK's Brexit negotiator until late last year, said the argument showed that "Brexit really is not safe" in the hands of Ellwood or other Tory MPs who voted to replace Johnson as prime minister.

Treasury minister Simon Clarke, a staunch Johnson ally, tweeted that rejoining the single market would "extinguish half the freedoms that make Brexit so important," and that he was "pleased to reassure Mr Ellwood" that the UK would not be rejoining the trade bloc.

Downing Street characterised the remarks as a Remainer effort to remove Johnson in a bid to dilute Brexit. "Many people trying to remove the PM want to water down Brexit. Being so nakedly anti-Brexit is incredibly naive," a senior government source told PoliticsHome.

In a last-ditch plea to win over Tory MPs ahead of the confidence vote on Monday, Johnson himself appeared to make reference reference Ellwood's argument. The prime minister said the party needed to talk about issues that matter to the public, "instead of getting into some hellish groundhog day debate about the merit of belonging to the single market".

But another Conservative rebel who spoke to PoliticsHome about Ellwood's single market argument, and supports closer ties with EU, believed the impact it had on how the vote went was being exaggerated. 

An ally of Ellwood said the claim that the article convinced numerous Tory MPs to vote with the prime minister was a "mischevious" Downing Street briefing, and pointed out that ardent Brexiteers including Steve Baker voted no confidence in the prime minister on Monday night. 

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