Johnson could sacrifice majority by withdrawing whip from rebel MPs

Rebel Tories face deselection over Brexit, as PM abruptly cancels meeting with group including ex-ministers

Boris Johnson is prepared to blow up his own parliamentary majority and withdraw the whip from dozens of Conservative MPs if they back plans to stop no-deal Brexit, Tory whips have warned potential rebels, in an extreme move by Downing Street that would pave the way for an imminent general election.

As hostilities escalated, Johnson also signalled how serious his intention is to follow through the threat of deselection by abruptly ripping up plans for a meeting with rebellious former ministers, including Philip Hammond and David Gauke, that had been billed as a last-ditch effort to limit support for the action in parliament.

Hammond was offered a one-to-one meeting with the prime minister which he declined, calling it “discourteous” to cancel on the group.

“There has been very little attempt at engagement with us, but these people were going in seeking proof of genuine attempts to get a Brexit deal,” one source close to the MPs said. “The fact it had been cancelled at short notice suggests there isn’t a proper negotiation going on. The next point of engagement will be in the voting lobbies.”

The former cabinet ministers supporting a cross-party bid to stop no deal fought back on Sunday night, telling MPs they must be prepared to take the government to court if it defied any law passed by rebel MPs in parliament.

The threat was prompted by a suggestion from Michael Gove that the government may not feel bound by the legislation.

Ahead of a historic week in parliament, a fierce briefing war erupted across the Conservative party as whips convened for Sunday lunch with Johnson at the prime minister’s country retreat at Chequers, agreeing that any Conservative MP who voted on the rebel legislation would have the whip withdrawn and become ineligible to stand for the party.

“The whips are telling Conservative MPs today a very simple message – 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,” said a senior source in the whips’ office source. “Any Conservative MP who does this will have the whip withdrawn and will not stand as a Conservative candidate in an election.”

No 10 believes the nuclear threat of deselection, and its unprecedented consequence of removing the whip of a former chancellor and justice secretary just weeks after they left government, has a serious chance of spooking MPs and wiping the majority for any no-deal legislation in parliament.

Government sources conceded that the practical reality of removing the whip from a significant number of MPs could inevitably lead to a general election.

Should the government lose the support of the more than 20 MPs currently planning to vote against it, Johnson would find it impossible to manage in minority government.

“For a government that has a majority of one which has repeatedly said it does not want an election, to then threaten to deselect 20 MPs, well it suggests that it is not the case,” one prominent rebel said.

The whips’ office source said the seriousness of the threat was to underline that MPs would be deliberately scuppering the chance of a Brexit deal. “There is a chance of a deal on 17 October only because Brussels realises the prime minister is totally committed to leaving on 31 October,” the source said.

Ex-ministers, including Hammond and Gauke, voiced outrage at the threat, calling it hypocrisy that a cabinet with eight former rebels at its heart could then threaten MPs with deselection.

A source close to the MPs under threat of deselection said they would not be deterred: “This is sheer hypocrisy. Almost a quarter of the current cabinet have voted against the party whip. But this is about the national interest, and we’ve moved beyond the point where threats will persuade people to abandon their principles.”

The suggestion by Gove that the government could defy the law also sparked fury from MPs, including one former Tory minister who said it showed democracy was under threat from Johnson’s government.

One source close to the group of ex-ministers said Gove’s comments underlined the urgency of passing the bill this week, to allow time for legal action if the government rejected the new law or if Johnson refused to follow its direction to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline.

“This legislation will need to be taken to the courts if the government decides not to abide by it,” a senior source close to the Conservative rebels said. “That is precisely why we have to act next week. In October, we will not have enough time. It is literally now or never.”

A bill which would mandate another extension of article 50 has been drafted which senior sources said would go into more detail about the length of an extension – unlike the previous law passed by Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin which did not specify a timeframe.

Letwin is expected to lead the bill’s presentation, though the effort has been closely coordinated with the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and the Labour frontbench. On Tuesday, MPs are expected to immediately ask the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, for an emergency debate under the standing order 24 rule, debates which traditionally end with a neutral motion.

However, rebels hope the Speaker will allow a vote on a motion to set aside Wednesday for MPs to take control of the Commons order paper to pass a bill through all stages in the Commons.

Corbyn will convene a meeting of the shadow cabinet on Monday to outline the plans, saying Labour will do “everything necessary to pull our country back from the brink”.

Starmer said the bill would be “a very short, simple exercise designed to ensure we don’t crash out without a deal,” saying the length of an extension was a “secondary” concern.

“It will be as simple as it possibly can be,” said one source close to the cross-party talks. “That is the only way to keep the coalition together.”

In an interview with the BBC, Gove repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility that the government could ignore any law passed by parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit. “Let’s see what the legislation says,” he said. “You’re asking me about a pig in a poke.”

Starmer called for Johnson to make an urgent statement on Gove’s comments. “For ministers not to confirm that this government will accept and comply with legislation lawfully passed is breathtaking,” he tweeted.

The Conservative MP Guto Bebb, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, said Gove had shown the “our very democracy is now under threat from Boris Johnson and his government”.

MPs who have been now been denied the meeting with Johnson said they had planned to challenge the prime minister on the need to devise a concrete proposal for a new deal and demanded a positive reaction from the EU in order to be convinced of Johnson’s sincerity.

“We are now less than three weeks away from the 30-day deadline for an alternative to the backstop,” said a source close to the group. “This is a group who are all reconciled that the best outcome is a Brexit deal. They genuinely want to see helpful signs – so is the prime minister able to give them new, concrete evidence that a deal is in play?”

Speaking on Sky News, Gauke said he hoped that Johnson would not follow through with threats to withdraw the whip but suggested it would not change his mind.

“Sometimes there is a point where ... you have to judge between your own personal interests and the national interest. And the national interest has to come first,” he said.

“But, I hope it doesn’t come to that, and I hope cooler and calmer heads will look at this and think that trying to split the Conservative party in this way is not a sensible way forward for the Conservative party, or indeed for the country.”

Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt and former health minister Stephen Hammond – both of whom have made clear they will vote for measures to stop no deal – also voiced fury at the threat.

Burt said he had “loyally supported” Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and voted three times to leave the EU, unlike members of the current cabinet like Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Why am I now being threatened and not them?” he tweeted.


Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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