Imagine that you’re a Tory MP who wants to vote against the government today – and you’re going to be deselected if you do. What do you do about the next general election?
Do you stand as a Gaukeward squad independent? Do you do a Phillip Lee and move over to the Lib Dems? Or, like Justine Greening, give up on Westminster altogether?
The answer, and what Boris Johnson's deselection threat means to potential rebel MPs, is complex and highly dependent on the political outlook of each MP's seat.
For some MPs, Boris Johnson's threat is very real, and potential rebels will have chosen to walk back from the brink today to prevent their careers being cut short. While some Scottish MPs in heavily Remain seats, predicting they will certainly be defeated by the SNP irrespective of their vote today, may have decided they would prefer to go down fighting for Boris and party in the hope of being selected for a seat somewhere else in the future – further south.
But to others, the threat might seem somewhat blunt. 'What is dead may never die' declared the Iron Born in Game of Thrones: it is rather pointless to threaten to remove people like Oliver Letwin who have already announced their retirement. Then again, MPs like Letwin may find it harder to gain ennoblement under a future Conservative government, if there is one.
Less highlighted, however, is the fact many of the rebels represent areas of enduring Remain strength. Indeed, of the list of 21 possible rebels circulated yesterday, 12 hold seats in which the combined Remain vote in May’s European elections (Lib Dems, Green and Change UK) exceeded the Leave vote (Brexit party, Conservatives and Ukip), according to estimates published by Prof Chris Hanretty. In six, the margin was 10 points or more. It goes without saying that not all Conservative MPs will relish the idea of a snap election that acts as a referendum on Brexit, let alone no deal.
A simple, if drastic, route open to deselected rebels would be outright defection to the Lib Dems. Sarah Wollaston, the first Conservative to make such a move, will have been helped in her decision by the presence of some historic Lib Dem strength in her seat, Devon’s most progressive outside Exeter. The same should be true for Heidi Allen: South Cambridgeshire backed Remain parties by 26 points in the European elections, and the Lib Dems stormed the local elections there a few weeks earlier. If Allen did defect, she would immediately be able to access the Lib Dem's battle-hardened campaign infrastructure – making it surprising that she hasn't crossed over already.
Wollaston and Allen, in particular, are the kind of small-L liberals David Cameron once saw as a natural part of the Conservative family, and so are more at home with Liberal Democrats. But other potential dissenters, such as Steve Brine in Winchester, Caroline Nokes in Romsey and Anne Milton in Guildford are conservatives of a deeper shade of blue, who simply disagree with Number 10 on no deal, and are much less likely to ever wear a yellow rosette. All gained their constituencies from the Lib Dems after bitter and often very personal street fights in recent decades.
So what if those rebels run as Independent Conservatives, as has been suggested? Some may not fare as badly as one might imagine. In David Gauke’s South West Hertfordshire, Remain parties beat Leave parties by more than 10 points in May – and in Ed Vaizey’s Wantage by 9. In both seats, the Lib Dems dominate in local elections and – presuming their own candidate withdraws – some of their activists could even assist the Independents' campaigns, unofficially or otherwise.
For Justine Greening, today’s decision to step down must have been more down to the fatigue at fighting a party to which she has dedicated her life than a belief she wouldn’t win her seat. Putney supported Remain parties in May by a 26 point margin. It is in fact much harder to imagine her winning re-election as the official Conservative candidate than as a plucky Independent (as long as she was given a clear run by the Lib Dems), with a message of defending her constituents against the Brexit abyss.
But can a Lib Dem withdrawal be guaranteed in all cases? In Stephen Hammond’s Wimbledon, Putney’s neighbour, Remain parties beat Leave by 32 points, with the yellows receiving 44 per cent of the vote, their fifth highest total across the UK. Similarly, in Steve Brine’s Winchester, the sixth-highest, they received 43 per cent with Remain parties 18 points ahead. The Lib Dems must already feel confident in these seats – and will not want longstanding opponents who oppose a second referendum (unlike Greening), interfering in their plans. Such situations present interesting conundrums: if an MP felt it likely they would lose as a Conservative, why wouldn’t they want the whip withdrawn? Equally, if the Lib Dems didn’t then stand down, might the Remain vote split and hand the seat to a Brexiteer – or in Wimbledon’s case, a Corbynista?
For other rebels or potential rebels in Leave-leaning seats, the situation looks far more precarious. These MPs are unquestionably acting from pure principle. In Penrith, which opted for Leave parties over Remain by 14 points in May, Rory Stewart will need huge numbers of constituents to overlook his stance on Brexit and commit to him personally, as his Association Chairman has already done. There is a tendency for sparse rural seats to be slightly idiosyncratic, as the recent Lib Dem win in Brecon showed. But in Conservative commuter belt East Surrey, a similar phenomenon seems unlikely to save Sam Gyimah.
These calculations draw out the complexity of a multi-party politics with electoral coalitions built up over the past century fragmenting. Independents rarely win elections because they lack the infrastructure of national parties – even more so in the age of mass Facebook advertising. But if the national Remain movement and the Liberal Democrats, in particular, are willing to offer assistance to these new-found rebels, they may fare rather better in a general election than Downing Street might want.
The potential rebellion, in data:
*Leave parties = Conservatives, Brexit party and Ukip
**Remain parties = Lib Dems, Greens, and Change UK