Katy Balls

Boris Johnson clashes with Gaukeward squad over deselection threat

Boris Johnson clashes with Gaukeward squad over deselection threat
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How many Tory MPs will vote against the government this week in a bid to stop a no deal Brexit? When MPs return to the House of Commons on Tuesday from the summer recess, a cross-party group of MPs – with the help of John Bercow – are expected to try to take control of the order paper and push through a bill to legislate against no deal.

As James revealed at the weekend, No. 10 is planning to dissuade Tories from joining the efforts by threatening to deselect any Tory MPs who vote for such measures. This evening a government whips source confirmed the move:

'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.

Any Conservative MP who does this will have the whip withdrawn and will not stand as Conservative candidates in an election. There is a chance of a deal on October 17 only because Brussels realises the Prime Minister is totally committed to leaving on October 31.

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.'

The move comes after Boris Johnson earlier cancelled a scheduled meeting with potential rebels for tomorrow afternoon in Downing Street. The expectation was that Johnson – with the help of Amber Rudd – would use the meeting to try and convince these MPs to hold fire and not join cross-party efforts to tie the government's hands – on the grounds that it would only make no deal more likely. Downing Street sources suggest the cancellation is down to diary commitments – though Johnson did find time to still invite chief Gawkward squad member Philip Hammond to a one-on-one meeting. The former chancellor has since declined the invitation on the grounds that Johnson shouldn't have cancelled the other meeting.

Figures in the Gaukeward squad – of Tory MPs opposed to a no deal Brexit – are taking the cancellation along with the formalisation of the whipping as a sign Johnson does not wish to compromise – or work to bring them on the board. On the cancelled meeting, a source close to the MPs says: 'Aside from being deeply discourteous, today's behaviour shows this is not a government interested in compromise. These MPs want proof that there is a genuine and sincere effort to get a deal. The fact that the Prime Minister isn't even prepared to meet them suggests that there isn't.'

So, will No. 10's tactics work? It depends what they are aimed at. While it will likely result in the government losing its working majority – currently at one – the move should reduce the scale of the rebellion. While a number of anti-no deal MPs – including Gauke – have hinted that faced with the ultimatum they would do what they thought was best for the country (it's safe to presume that they don't think that's a no deal Brexit), others are feeling less bullish. One such MP tells Coffee House they are 'appalled' by the threat but they are unlikely to vote against the government as a result. Of those who are willing to risk having the whip withdrawn, Rory Stewart and David Gauke have both hinted they will proceed as planned and try to block no deal next week.

There are also a chunk of anti-no deal MPs who plan to support the government this week on the simple grounds that they see it as the best chance to securing a deal. One former minister tells me they 'felt a sense of duty to new PM after he did the unthinkable in Paris and Berlin' by paving the way to a renegotiation. It follows that a combination of tough tactics on whipping and emphasis on getting a deal could be enough to make the numbers on a rebellion tight.

However, those on the rebel side are optimistic they will still have the numbers to push through legislation. Oliver Letwin has already said he won't seek re-election so the deselection threat won't change his path. Meanwhile, Dominic Grieve, Philip Lee and Guto Bebb are seen as shoo-ins to rebel. Either way, government figures say No. 10 is prepared for all scenarios in the coming days and have war-gamed every possible Commons outcome to ensure they are ready to respond.

Given that the one thing all Tory MPs can agree on is that an election is imminent, the tactics from No. 10 are as much about proving this government is serious about delivering Brexit as reducing the size of the rebellion. If Johnson finds himself in the midst of an election campaign in the next couple weeks, he will want to say that his party did everything they could to deliver Brexit. This is part of that.