Boris Johnson has dramatically escalated the Conservative civil war on Brexit by threatening to purge some of the party’s biggest beasts — including former chancellor Philip Hammond — unless they back him in a key Brexit vote on Tuesday.
The UK prime minister has warned Conservative rebels they will be stripped of the party whip and banned from standing as Tory candidates at the next election if they do not back his tough line on Brexit.
Mr Hammond, former deputy prime minister David Lidington and former justice secretary David Gauke were among around 15 Tory rebels who planned to hold face-to-face talks with the prime minister on Monday.
But in a further sign of Mr Johnson’s hardball tactics, he abruptly cancelled the meeting with the group of MPs on Sunday evening, citing a “diary clash”. The prime minister has offered Mr Hammond a private meeting instead.
Mr Hammond declined the offer of a one-to-one meeting. A source close to the rebels said Mr Johnson’s refusal to meet the whole group was “deeply discourteous”.
“Today’s behaviour shows this is not a government interested in compromise,” the source said. “These MPs want proof that there is a genuine and sincere attempt to get a deal. The fact that the prime minister isn’t even prepared to meet them suggests there isn’t.”
The Tory rebels are planning to work with Labour and other opposition parties to try to seize control of the House of Commons order paper and then pass a law to stop Mr Johnson from executing a no-deal departure from the EU on October 31.
The prime minister agreed the dramatic deselection threat after talks with party whips and advisers at Chequers, his country residence, on Sunday; Mr Johnson’s aides believe the threat of deselection will burn off some of the rebels ahead of the critical votes this week.
But a source from the Tory whips office said: “If they fail to vote with the government on Tuesday they will be destroying the government’s negotiating position and handing control of parliament to Jeremy Corbyn.”
One senior Tory said the EU would strike a new exit deal only if no-deal was on the table: “All MPs face a simple choice on Tuesday: to vote with the government and preserve the chance of a deal or vote with Corbyn and destroy any chance of a deal.”
But Rory Stewart, former international development secretary, said: “If we want to stop no-deal, we have to stop it this week. I’m proud to be a Conservative, I want to stand as a Conservative in my constituency, but I can’t stand on a no-deal platform.”
Mr Hammond said on Saturday Mr Johnson was showing “staggering hypocrisy” in threatening to throw out Tory MPs who oppose no-deal, since eight serving cabinet ministers have rebelled on Brexit this year.
The parliamentary arithmetic this week will be very tight. Some 21 Tory MPs, including former cabinet ministers, wrote to Mr Johnson last month to oppose a no-deal exit, while a number of other Tories oppose Brexit altogether.
“I think we are in the range of about 20 but even if it was as low as a dozen it would be enough,” said one Tory MP. The government has a majority of just one, but some Labour MPs from Leave supporting areas could side with Mr Johnson.
Downing Street has already squeezed the time available for a rebellion by announcing a controversial five-week suspension of parliament.
A group of around 15 Tory MPs, led by Mr Hammond, had sought a meeting with Mr Johnson on Monday to raise their concerns about a no-deal Brexit and seek reassurances.
“We want to know why he has not yet proposed an alternative to the Irish backstop and why he now says a no-deal exit is ‘touch and go’,” said one of the rebels, referring to the controversial plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. “We want to see what it is — in time to assess whether the EU will accept it.”
But Mr Johnson’s allies suggested the meeting was a waste of time. “They won’t change their minds,” said one.
If Mr Johnson carries out his threat to remove the whip from Tory rebels he will lose his Commons majority. If the victims of the purge stood as “independent Conservatives” at the next election, it could split the Tory vote in seats where the party has a slim majority.
Some Tory MPs, including Mr Gauke, say they will put national interest ahead of personal interests. One MP said: “We have gone beyond being swayed by threats or the promise of gongs — people are not going to abandon their principles.”
The threat to purge some of the most senior members of the Conservative party is further evidence of Mr Johnson’s transformation of the Tories into the “Brexit party” and the tough tactics he is prepared to deploy to achieve his goal.
In another dramatic move Michael Gove, minister for no deal planning, failed to rule out the possibility that Boris Johnson could ignore the law if MPs this week pass legislation to stop him from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal.
Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Programme on Sunday morning if Mr Johnson would abide by any legislation that blocked a no-deal exit on October 31, Mr Gove replied: “Let’s see what the legislation says. You’re asking me about a pig in a poke.”
Guto Bebb, a Tory MP and former defence minister, said: “This government’s unprecedented willingness to flout the rules is a disgrace to our democracy.”
Meanwhile Michel Barnier, chief EU Brexit negotiator, defended the Irish backstop — which Mr Johnson wants to strip out of Theresa May’s withdrawal treaty — and said he was “not optimistic” of a new deal being reached before October 31.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Barnier appeared to undermine Mr Johnson and poured fuel on this week’s planned rebellion by suggesting the two sides were still far apart.
He said: “On the EU side, we had intense discussions with EU member states on the need to guarantee the integrity of the EU’s single market, while keeping that border fully open.
“In this sense, the backstop is the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-member state.”