Analysis: Boris Johnson has torn down the Tories’ broad church on Europe
By taking action against a slew of former Conservative ministers, including Ken Clarke, Boris Johnson is changing the face of the Tory party, writes Sebastian Whale
Ken Clarke burst into laughter when he recalled that Michael Heseltine, the Tory peer and former cabinet minister, had lost the Conservative whip. “I mean, it is complete comedy that someone who’s so much a part of the Conservative establishment as Michael Heseltine is suspended from the party,” he said, his voice cracking. “Utterly ludicrous!”
I interviewed Clarke for The House magazine in July, soon after he announced he would stand down as an MP at the next election. The former Chancellor, who has served in multiple front bench jobs during his storied career, had also said he was prepared to vote against a Conservative government in a no-confidence vote in order to prevent a no deal exit.
While last night was about paving the way for legislation to prevent leaving the EU without a deal, Clarke was one of 21 Tory rebels to vote against the Government, all of whom have now lost the party whip. Sir Nicholas Soames, another former chancellor in Philip Hammond, and David Gauke – voting against his party for the first time – were among those to also be ousted.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of the Conservatives. For more than four decades, the party has held together its disparate views on Europe – albeit by a thread and to the cost of consecutive leaders. The pretence that the party’s broad church was of benefit has now been ditched. Many encouraged David Cameron and others to take on the more hardline eurosceptic MPs in his ranks once and for all. Now, it is the Brexiteers in the ascendency.
By acting in such a ruthless manner, Boris Johnson has made plain that no longer can personal agendas trump party policy on the vexed issue of the European Union. The will of the people, in the PM’s eyes, is totemic.
As a result, 21 formerly Conservative MPs have lost the whip. Alistair Burt, Justine Greening and Sir Oliver Letwin – all of whom hail from the centre of the party – are among those to be retiring at the next election. One of those standing down told me this morning there could be “as many as 20” Tory MPs stepping aside. “This is the end of the party as I know it,” the MP said.
The future for the so-called One Nation band of Tory MPs is now deeply uncertain. There was thought to be between 60-80 MPs in the group, but a good many of them are on their way out of the Commons. The Conservative parliamentary party could look markedly different post an election, with more MPs signed up to leave the EU at the end of October come what may, do or die. Johnson, himself thought to be fully signed up to the One Nation agenda, will, therefore, inherit a more obedient set of backbenchers. But gone will be much of the diversity of thought that has comprised today’s Conservative party and the voters who come with it.
Many of those who lost the whip voted for the Brexit deal three times and were at pains to point out that the PM, his Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House (Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg), had only backed it once. While Brexiteers have rebelled against successive leaders for years, Remainers have lost the whip off the back of one vote (Leavers would cite other examples of rebellion in recent years). A senior Tory figure told me, however, that the whip was taken for voting to wrest control of the order paper from the Government, rather than for just for the act of rebellion.
Back in the middle of summer, I asked Clarke if he felt there was still space for him in the modern-day Tory party. “Yes, at the moment,” he said. But he conceded that the momentum was against him. “People who answer an opinion poll question saying they’d be quite happy to see the break-up of the United Kingdom if it was necessary to England to get Brexit, I would not regard as members of a Conservative and Unionist party. So, we will just have to see what form the party takes once it’s got a new leader.”
Defiantly, he added: “I’m a Conservative, they can decide what they are.”