Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy was on Tuesday night facing ruin, after Conservative rebels inflicted a Commons defeat on the prime minister that leaves Britain on the brink of a general election and the Tory party in a state of disintegration.
A total of 21 Tory MPs, led by former chancellor Philip Hammond, in effect threw away their political careers as they defied Mr Johnson and backed moves to pass an emergency law to stop a no-deal Brexit.
The prime minister lost the key vote by 328 to 301, a heavier defeat than expected, and immediately put MPs on notice that he was ready to legislate to hold a snap general election.
The so-called “rebel alliance”, which saw Tory MPs join forces with Labour and other opposition parties, defeated Mr Johnson’s government, amid acrimonious and chaotic scenes in the House of Commons.
Mr Johnson had warned the rebels they would have the whip removed and be banned from standing as Tory candidates at the next election if they did not back him — a purge that would see some of the party’s most respected figures ejected.
Former chancellors Mr Hammond and Ken Clarke were among those facing the sack, along with a number of ex-ministers who served under Theresa May, including Greg Clark, Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening, Rory Stewart and David Gauke.
Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, is also facing the sack.
Mark Spencer, chief whip, last night confirmed to the rebels that they were having the whip removed, meaning that Mr Johnson now runs a chronically unstable minority government. Two Labour MPs, Kate Hoey and John Mann, supported the government.
Earlier, Phillip Lee, a former health minister, crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberal Democrats in the middle of a speech by the prime minister, removing Mr Johnson’s tiny Commons majority.
The victims of the purge blamed the aggressive tactics on Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s abrasive chief adviser. “He’s not a Conservative member and he never has been,” said one former cabinet minister. “He has total contempt for the party.”
The ill-feeling was reciprocated and poison is now coursing through the bloodstream of the Conservative party. Allies of Mr Johnson accused the rebels of being “hysterical” and “wrecking” the prime minister’s strategy.
Mr Johnson told his restive party that those backing a bill to ban a no-deal exit — and require him to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 exit process — were signing up to “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill”.
Last night’s vote saw the anti-no deal MPs seize control of the Commons order paper, allowing them to bring forward emergency legislation to block no deal. MPs hope to rush it through all its Commons stages on Wednesday.
The bill would then go to the House of Lords with a view to it becoming law before parliament is suspended until mid-October.
Mr Johnson warned MPs that if they persisted in pushing through the anti-no deal law, he would call for an immediate election under the Fixed Term Parliaments act — a move which would require the support of two-thirds of MPs.
Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP would back an election but only if the legislation to stop a no deal Brexit was on the statute book first. It left Mr Johnson looking severely weakened. One MP heckled: “Not a good start Boris.”
Labour also wants rock-solid guarantees that Mr Johnson will stick to the October 14 or 15 date — and not try to postpone the poll until after Brexit day on October 31.
The Conservative rebellion came after Mr Johnson failed to convince MPs he was serious about securing a Brexit deal. He insisted “progress” was being made in talks with Brussels but failed to provide any evidence of new British thinking.
Mr Clarke, in what might turn out to be his last speech as a Conservative MP after a career spanning almost 50 years, said Brexit had created “an horrendous debate which is tearing this country apart”.