Prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to remove the whip from 21 MPs who voted against his government capped an extraordinarily dramatic day in parliament on September 3. But is this de-selection something that will have lasting consequences, or is it just another episode in the long-running parliamentary edition of Carry on Brexiting?
Removing the whip from an MP is rare – and therefore extreme. Between 1979 and this year, only 20 Conservative MPs had ever had the whip removed. Some MPs avoid having the whip removed by switching to a different party. Indeed Philip Lee did just that a few hours before the 21 rebels were suspended. He is now a Liberal Democrat. But defections are also rare.
This parliament, however, is proving to be exceptional. The closest comparison is to the last years of John Major’s government in the 1990s, when a Conservative party beset by divisions over Europe decided to lose its parliamentary majority by removing the whip from 10 MPs who had abstained in a key vote. Johnson’s action are more severe, both because more MPs are affected, and because the MPs who rebelled had served in Cabinet posts – including, in the case of Philip Hammond, some of the most senior posts in government.
Having the whip removed is not terminal, and what is taken away can be restored. The Maastricht rebels who lost the whip in November 1994 returned to the fold in April of the following year. If this parliament were to run until the next scheduled election in 2022, then these rebels would likely be re-admitted to the parliamentary Conservative Party. However, given that most observers expect an election in the coming weeks and months, and given that the government has threatened not just to remove the whip from rebels but also to de-select them as parliamentary candidates, re-admission does not seem likely.
In pursuing (or threatening) deselection, the government is also resorting to an extreme measure. It’s not unprecedented for the party to force the de-selection of a sitting MP: in 2005, Howard Flight, the MP for Arundel and South Downs, was forced out over comments he made at a private meeting about Conservative tax cuts. It would, however, set the central party at odds with local parties, some of which have just recently (and rather pointedly) re-selected some of the 21 MPs who rebelled.
Some MPs have chosen the path of least resistance, and announced that they will not stand again for election. Although this is probably the most favourable outcome for the Conservative Party, it is not without its problems electorally. Incumbent candidates enjoy an advantage over new candidates. The size of that incumbency advantage varies between the parties. For Conservative MPs in recent elections, the size of the incumbency advantage is between one and one and three quarter percentage points. That foregone advantage might not matter at all in Alistair Burt’s constituency of North East Bedfordshire (majority: 20,862), but it might matter rather more in Putney, where rebelling MP Justine Greening has a majority of just 1,554.
A far greater threat to the Conservative Party would emerge if any of the de-selected MPs decided to run for election as “Independent Conservatives”. There have been examples in the devolved parliaments of incumbent Labour parliamentarians running as independents and winning: Peter Law and Dennis Canavan had, in Blaneau Gwent and Falkirk West respectively, some of the safest seats in the Welsh and Scottish parliaments.
It’s also worth noting that Independent Conservative candidates could have an impact on the election even if they don’t win their seats back. Votes won by those candidates are votes not won by the Conservative party’s candidate.
There is, of course, a broader national picture to consider. By de-selecting MPs who voted to delay Brexit rather than leave with no deal, the Conservative Party is able to credibly claim that it is utterly committed to leaving the EU come hell or high water. That argument may resonate with voters tempted by the Brexit Party. Squeezing the Brexit Party, and hoping that the Remain vote is split roughly equally between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, is the Conservative party’s clearest route to a majority.