The prime minister intuitively understands that hard-Brexit chaos will sustain his premiership. He must be stopped
The defeat of Boris Johnson’s government by the opposition and 21 of his own MPs is the first shot in a battle for the soul of the Conservative party. Six weeks after he took office, the prime minister looks certain to be forced by law to break his promise to leave the European Union by 31 October, “do or die”. The implications for the Tory party are likely to be more significant than for Mr Johnson. The rebels will be purged from the party, by having the whip withdrawn and being prevented from standing as Tory candidates in the next election. The argument over Brexit raging in the Tory party might see the kind of split that followed Robert Peel’s 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws.
Mr Johnson acts as if he wants such a schism, to seal his hostile takeover of the Tory party. The scale and pace of his power grab might astonish outsiders, but no one within the party should be surprised. In June the votes of 92,000 Tory members elected Mr Johnson, a no-dealer, to the party leadership. A month later he made it clear that only no-dealers could sit round the cabinet table. Mr Johnson has lost his majority in parliament, but he has strengthened his hold on his party. Now the Conservative party will be shorn of critics, allowing Mr Johnson to campaign in a forthcoming election – if he can engineer one – with a pledge to reverse any law that prevents a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. For Mr Johnson the incarnation of the Tory party under Theresa May was weak. Weak in spirit, in manner and in appearance. This would not do, he reasoned, for a country that was hurt, angry and scared. Mr Johnson’s response was to adopt the Trumpian tactic of goading opponents to energise his supporters.