LONDON — Boris Johnson can still be the Tories’ hero — but he needs a Brexit deal more than ever before.
Despite a stormy September — in which he kicked out 21 members of his own party for voting against him and angered many on his own side by suspending parliament — among Conservative MPs, support for their boisterous leader is holding steady, thanks to a charm offensive and the threat of electoral annihilation if they fail to deliver Brexit.
Since taking office, the prime minister has entertained more than 50 of his own MPs at intimate drinks and dinner parties at various locations, including his country residence Chequers and in No. 10. Downing Street. The small guest lists have always included a careful mix of Brexiteers and more pro-EU MPs in order to avoid suggestions that different factions have conflicting information, according to one No. 10 aide.
“There is a clear objective to make the prime minister much more accessible. If you want to speak to him, you can find a way to speak to him,” one MP tasked with sounding out backbench sentiment said.
Johnson’s pitch is that the party will be punished by the electorate if Brexit is further delayed. While the prime minister failed to convince the 21 Tory rebels he is serious about leaving the European Union with a deal, he did convince others opposed to a no-deal exit.
If Johnson strikes a deal with Brussels, many MPs and aides see a route for some of the rebels to return to the fold.
If Johnson strikes a deal with Brussels, many MPs and aides see a route for some of the rebels to return to the fold. If he fails, however, and goes into a general election advocating a no-deal exit, few see a way to hold the party together.
Victoria Prentis, a backbench MP who backed Tory rebel Rory Stewart’s summer leadership run, said she is convinced Johnson really is “going for a deal” following a “frank” discussion with the prime minister at a meeting with a small group of colleagues.
“[His manner] was very serious, it really was, and it certainly persuaded me. I think people are giving him a chance [to get a deal]. If he doesn’t, I don’t know, we will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said.
Inside Downing Street, officials are bullish. The prime minister’s “do or die” Brexit strategy, including the decision to remove the whip from so many colleagues, is essential to the survival of the Conservative Party, officials say.
“I think [the prime minister] recognizes that the delivery of Brexit is the priority for him and that ultimately without that the future of the party is in a perilous position,” one senior government official said.
“[Removing the MPs] is part of getting Brexit delivered and that is why he took the decision,” the official added. “If we don’t do [Brexit], there is no One Nation Conservatives, we just become another administration that failed to deliver Brexit.”
But among other Tory MPs there is despair at the direction Johnson is taking the party.
Former Justice Secretary David Gauke has warned the prime minister’s strategy risks turning the Conservatives into a “Farage-lite” party that will alienate millions of traditional Tory voters. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has warned the Tories are becoming a “heavily ideological party being led in a way I don’t identify as being conservative at all.”
In the eyes of some Conservative MPs, the rot comes directly from Downing Street.
Senior officials with no loyalty to the Conservative Party itself were, in the vivid analysis of one Conservative MP, “eating the party from the inside like maggots.”
“If they are now on plan B, they probably need to get a deal now, it is probably a slightly different approach” — figure close to Tory rebels
The chief focus of moderate Tory angst is Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s powerful senior adviser, who is not, as far as is known from his public statements, a Conservative member.
Munira Mirza, the head of Johnson’s policy unit, has also caught the eye for her past association with the Revolutionary Communist Party, a small Trotskyist party that was disbanded in 1997.
“They were people who believe in destruction and eternal revolution,” the senior Conservative MP said.
In other words, not conservatives — either with a big “C” or a small “c.”
Former Tory MP, now Tory peer, Robert Hayward, who has been a member of the Conservative Party for almost 50 years, said Brexit had caused the “most marked chasm” in the party’s membership he could recall since joining.
He warned a shift in the party’s membership “to a more ideologically driven group of people” would make efforts to move the party back to its more “pragmatic” traditions post Brexit more difficult.
But he said widespread calls from a range of MPs for the whip to be reinstated to their colleagues demonstrates an unwillingness, even among some Brexiteers, to see the center of gravity of the parliamentary party shift too far.
Back in the fold
Some of the 21 rebels hope Johnson’s failure to convince parliament to vote for a pre-Brexit election, which he wanted to shore up his position, may have opened a route for their return to the party.
One figure close to the rebels said they suspect the original Downing Street plan had been to “kick these guys out, fight on a hard-nosed ticket, and go along some sort of Cummings-esqe realignment of two-party politics,” replacing the rebels with hard Brexiteers.
“If they are now on plan B, they probably need to get a deal now, it is probably a slightly different approach,” the figure close to the rebels said.
Many MPs have already appealed to the prime minister to allow their former colleagues to rejoin the party. Chief Whip Mark Spencer is holding talks with the MPs ahead of parliament’s return on October 14. But the figure working with the rebels said whether or not they did rejoin “would all hinge on Brexit.
“The majority of the group would consider themselves Conservatives, they are still members and would love to be Conservative MPs again.
“They wouldn’t need the whip back in order to vote for the deal, they would happily do that because that is their desired outcome, but it would seem logical that if the deal comes back, they vote for it and it gets through, then we would hope we can all kiss and make up.”
Charlie Cooper contributed reporting.
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