Just how far are Tory MPs prepared to go to stop a no deal Brexit?
Would Conservative MPs really back a vote of no confidence in a Tory prime minister to prevent leaving the EU empty-handed, asks Sebastian Whale
For this week’s edition of The House magazine, I touched base with several MPs in the One Nation Group of Conservatives. The caucus, which has around 60-80 MPs, was formed in March. Its figureheads include Cabinet ministers David Gauke and Amber Rudd, alongside former education secretary Nicky Morgan, Sir Nicholas Soames and policy guru George Freeman. Though splits on the issue have emerged, the group is opposed to a no deal exit.
But just how far are these Conservatives willing to go to prevent crashing out of the EU on 31 October? Boris Johnson has pledged to leave on Halloween “come what may, do or die”. Jeremy Hunt has also set out detailed plans of how he would countenance leaving on such terms.
Four Conservative MPs I spoke to failed to rule out voting against a Tory prime minister in a vote of no-confidence to prevent a no deal exit. “Never say never,” said one former frontbencher.
Backbench MP Antoinette Sandbach said: “I would not like to vote against my government in a vote of no confidence. I would probably try and support any other mechanism for making sure that a no deal didn’t happen.”
When pressed further, she added: “I’m not going to speculate. My decisions will have to be made at the time.”
Sir Roger Gale, a Commons veteran, predicted Boris Johnson would lose a no-confidence motion if it was held in October. “I’m not saying now I would never ever vote against Mr Johnson as Prime Minister in a vote of confidence,” he told me. “If he is selected by my party as the leader then that is a democratic decision, I have to accept that and give him a chance to prove that he can do something that he hasn’t done in the past and deliver. But if he can’t deliver, I think he will be very vulnerable indeed.”
A former cabinet minister said they would find it “almost impossible” to back a no-confidence motion – but did not explicitly rule out doing so.
The Conservatives have a working majority of four, with a by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire on 1 August. Therefore, it would only take a handful of Tory MPs to back a no-confidence motion to potentially bring down the Government. Tobias Ellwood, the defence minister, told BBC Newsnight around a “dozen” MPs would be prepared to take such action.
Gauke, the Justice Secretary, is a staunch opponent of no deal. But he draws the line at supporting a no-confidence motion. “The reason why is that I think the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister is one that chills me even more than a no deal Brexit. It seems to me supporting a no-confidence motion leads to a Corbyn government,” he explained.
Gauke and others are banking on some parliamentary innovation as their route towards blocking a new PM from pursuing no deal. “I do think that parliament will find other mechanisms to try to stop this from happening,” he said.
Many groupings within parliament have faced the charge of being all bark and no bite during the Brexit debate. As a Labour frontbencher put it to me last year: “The Tory Remainers are in many ways a bit of a paper tiger and are not natural rebels.”
Though the numbers are precarious for the next PM, so is the political calculation for many Tory MPs. Do they believe the damage of a no deal exit is greater than the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government? Are their careers more likely to be affected by going against their party or failing to prevent an outcome that could do damage to their constituents?
A former Cabinet minister summed up the challenge at hand. “There are some highly principled people who would vote against the Government on a no-confidence motion, but it would be a massive thing for somebody to do and it would be the end of their political career in this party. There are some people who would be prepared to pay that price, and there are others for whom that is not a sacrifice they could make.”
Tory MPs have been hesitant to back recent efforts to prevent a WTO Brexit. Many MPs I’ve spoken to are willing to give the new prime minister some wriggle room to make good on their campaign pledges. After that, it will be decision time.
“We are in for a very volatile September and October. We all thought we’d seen a volatile first half of this year, it’s about to get more volatile,” said the former Cabinet minister.