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The expulsion of the 21 rebels is the most egregious action by a Tory party leadership in my lifetime

Johnson faces vote in Parliament, London, United Kingdom - 03 Sep 2019 
Tory Rebels (L-R) David Gauke, Philip Hammond, Greg Clarke and Caroline Noakes arrive at the cabinet office in London, Britain, 03 September 2019. Credit: NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/REX 

Without a strong, united party of the centre Right, Britain could become the battleground of extremism

Anyone who does not want to see an extreme, hard-Left individual who loathes much of the Western world come to power in Britain needs Boris Johnson to be a successful Prime Minister. For by the time we are singing Christmas carols, either he will have been returned to Downing Street or Jeremy Corbyn will be walking through its door.

That means that those Conservatives who, like me, pointed out the severe problems with a “do or die” approach to Brexit on October 31, must often bite our tongues, remind ourselves that he has taken on an almost impossible job and hope he finds his way through it. We should all be doing our best to make sure the Conservative Party can win an election in the short term and provide good government for the long term.

But when a misjudgement is made that is as serious as last week’s withdrawal of the whip from 21 MPs, it is not possible to let it go by without comment or pretend to be supportive. All of us who have been Tory leader have made mistakes, but this one is the most egregious and counter-productive act of self-harm committed by the party leadership that I can recall in my lifetime. If we do not speak out about it, there is little prospect that lessons will be learned.

I am influenced, of course, by having known many of these apparently guilty individuals for a long time. Some of them, like Philip Hammond, are also well known to the public, but the contribution to this country of others needs recognition. I spent years working with Alistair Burt at the Foreign Office, and know him as an extraordinarily dedicated minister and lifelong Tory. Margot James was my PPS and then became an excellent minister for the digital economy.

People like this have spent many years of their lives winning marginal seats for the Tories and broadening the party’s appeal. It is not possible to be aware of their record and characters without thinking that their expulsion from the parliamentary ranks of the Conservative Party, partly at the behest of people who have spent years rebelling, is a disgusting act of hypocrisy.

Space does not allow me to go through the work of each of these 21. But when I recall Nicholas Soames sitting assiduously on the backbenches and loyally supporting Tory leaders when I arrived in the Commons in 1989, and that he was still in the same spot, still supporting them, when I left in 2015, I cannot accept that he can be tossed out of the party after one rebellion on the whim of advisers who have only just turned up.

As for Ken Clarke, I spent much of my own career sparring with him over Europe, fighting him for the leadership and finding his views a constant nuisance. Yet the idea that he is not welcome in the Conservative Party suggests an intolerance that has never been our tradition. Past leaders, including me, have discouraged the deselection of even quite strident opponents within the party so that the famous “broad church” could be preserved. Now, entire pews are being ordered to worship elsewhere.

So much for their personal qualities, it might be argued, but surely a show of strength and discipline was required after years of infighting? The trouble with this argument is that these expulsions did not so much display great strength as reveal serious miscalculation. There was never much chance that this House of Commons would knowingly let a no-deal Brexit proceed, and a general election should have been demanded without the combination of a long prorogation and a large-scale purge, which have needlessly both united the opposition and destroyed the Government’s majority.

The loss of 21 MPs means it will now be even harder for the Government to bring about the election it needs and, while waiting for a dissolution after the opening of the new session, will be more exposed to further defeats and humiliation. It is like showing strength before an important race by deliberately blowing your foot off.

Worse still, when the election finally comes, some of those seats might now be denied to the Conservatives. Having campaigned for Rory Stewart in his seat of Penrith and the Border and witnessed his constituency work, I am prepared to predict that he would win there whether he stands as a Conservative, an Independent or indeed a Monster Raving Loony. He would not be the only one, and this election will not be so one-sided that seats can be thrown away.

The final problem with this whole episode is that it appears to send a signal – that if you are a “moderate” Tory, a socially liberal, fiscally responsible, internationalist Conservative who believes in the necessity of compromise and balance in our national affairs – you have to start to think about joining a new party. I would contend that, in fact, there are still many such people throughout the party and in the Cabinet itself. But the power of this mistaken signal to propel others into abandoning the Conservatives is considerable, as Amber Rudd’s dramatic departure this weekend has shown. This is the kind of event that can turn a split into a schism, a fissure into an unstoppable flow.

So what can be done? Is it possible to survive as a broad-based party and also deliver Brexit? What should Boris do about it?

The Conservative Party conference at the end of this month is now going to be a very important event. It will be the launch pad for an election, but also a powerful indicator of future philosophy and direction. The Prime Minister ought to set the tone from the outset of an inclusive and welcoming party, focused on the essential domestic issues he has identified. He should speak of a longer-term vision that can again command the centre ground of politics, once the shape and fate of Brexit is decided. Part of that should be opening the door to the reinstatement of MPs who want to stand again as Conservatives.

At the same time, those MPs should refrain from twisting the knife in fresh ministerial wounds. Britain needs a strong and united party of the centre Right if it is not to become the battleground of extremism. It will not be held together by brute force, rashly applied, but by an appreciation from the top of the deep and varied roots of the Conservative Party.

  • Read William Hague's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Monday night from 9.30pm