The defeat of Boris Johnson’s government by the opposition and 21 of his own MPs is the first shot in a battle for the soul of the Conservative party. Six weeks after he took office, the prime minister looks certain to be forced by law to break his promise to leave the European Union by 31 October, “do or die”. The implications for the Tory party are likely to be more significant than for Mr Johnson. The rebels will be purged from the party, by having the whip withdrawn and being prevented from standing as Tory candidates in the next election. The argument over Brexit raging in the Tory party might see the kind of split that followed Robert Peel’s 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws.
Mr Johnson acts as if he wants such a schism, to seal his hostile takeover of the Tory party. The scale and pace of his power grab might astonish outsiders, but no one within the party should be surprised. In June the votes of 92,000 Tory members elected Mr Johnson, a no-dealer, to the party leadership. A month later he made it clear that only no-dealers could sit round the cabinet table. Mr Johnson has lost his majority in parliament, but he has strengthened his hold on his party. Now the Conservative party will be shorn of critics, allowing Mr Johnson to campaign in a forthcoming election – if he can engineer one – with a pledge to reverse any law that prevents a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. For Mr Johnson the incarnation of the Tory party under Theresa May was weak. Weak in spirit, in manner and in appearance. This would not do, he reasoned, for a country that was hurt, angry and scared. Mr Johnson’s response was to adopt the Trumpian tactic of goading opponents to energise his supporters.
The prime minister wants to whip up as much indignation among leave voters as he can. It is a ploy to exacerbate grievances so that he can fight this base’s corner in a flag-waving general election. This must happen before the consequences of a no-deal exit become obvious. To achieve this, Mr Johnson’s strategy with the European Union has been to set out conditions to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement that cannot be met. That would make a damaging no-deal Brexit inevitable. The prime minister could then attach the blame for this outcome to his foes inside parliament and on the continent – hence his provocative and shameful descriptions of his opponents as collaborators who would “surrender” the UK’s sovereignty. This unholy mixture of political opportunism and misguided ideology has been driving Britain towards a geopolitical precipice.
If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, there will be economic chaos; those who suffer most will be the very people who voted for Brexit as an act of defiance. It is no surprise that Mr Johnson now talks about cutting the cost of living, aware no doubt that the Brexit-fuelled depreciation of the pound disproportionately affects the poor by pushing up the prices of food and fuel.
Mr Johnson’s pitch will be an update of the populism that William Hague road-tested in 2001: that the people are being betrayed by a “liberal elite” who wilfully ignore their concerns about foreigners and the threat posed by the EU, which unattended would see the UK becoming “a foreign land”. Yet even Mr Hague did not believe that pooling sovereignty with European partners would undermine our own and remove our right to cut regulation or get the best out of trade deals with the rest of the world. Mr Hague wanted a culture war with Europe, not an economic one. Mr Johnson wants both. This is how far the baleful virus of Europhobic populism has spread. It will keep the nation bitterly divided, even where considerable agreement once existed. Mr Johnson intuitively understands that turmoil will sustain his premiership – to the extent that there is no part of government that he will not burn down on behalf of the governed to keep himself in office. That is why he must be stopped.