The battle for the Tory party’s soul

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

When news broke over the weekend that former minister Nick Gibb had become the 14th Tory MP to publicly call for Boris Johnson to resign, cabinet loyalists were furious. They weren’t just concerned about the growing number of no-confidence letters — they were angered by what they saw as a co-ordinated effort by ‘One Nation’ Conservatives to oust the Prime Minister.

One Nation Tories, a 40-strong parliamentary group, have long been regarded with suspicion by Johnson’s inner circle. ‘They’re the government’s most obvious and vocal critics,’ says a member of the whips’ office. They tend to occupy traditional shire seats or sit in Lib Dem/Tory marginals. During the Brexit referendum they veered towards Remain.

The ‘one nation’ label — which dates to Disraeli — is now so vague that almost anyone can claim it. Take, for example, Johnson. During the 2019 leadership contest, he took part in a testy One Nation hustings, which I chaired. It was one of his trickiest audiences. When I asked which of the group’s principles he valued most, he replied that it was like asking a ‘tigress to pick between her cubs’.

There is little love between the group and Johnson these days. Despite the Prime Minister’s promise after the general election to lead a ‘new One Nation Conservative government’, his handling of Brexit and his loose relationship with the law has rattled many of his MPs. His plans to woo Red Wall seats with Operation Red Meat — including threats to axe the BBC licence fee — have had the opposite effect on One Nation Tories.

At a recent meeting of the group, its chairman, Damian Green, asked colleagues for five things that Johnson could do to improve the situation. ‘Resign, resign, resign,’ said Caroline Nokes, before Simon Hoare joined in to add the final two.

In theory, a Prime Minister with a majority of 80 should not have to worry about rubbing MPs up the wrong way. But now that a vote of a no-confidence seems like a real possibility, it is these tribes — and the Tory warlords who lead them — which will determine Johnson’s fate.

There are many caucuses and groups these days: Esther McVey’s blue-collar conservatives, Steve Baker’s net-zero scrutiny group, Mark Harper’s Covid recovery group and John Hayes’s anti-woke Common Sense group, to name but a few. In any Tory leadership race, most caucuses will run their own hustings. ‘It gives you power and influence,’ explains a member of the government. The idea is that each group anoints their preferred candidate.

The 2019 intake of Tory MPs has changed things. ‘We used to be a party of dining clubs based on ideas and philosophy,’ says one minister. ‘But the new guys are just interested in getting money out of the government for their constituencies. It’s all transactional.’

The government views some Tory groups as more far gone than others. Along with the One Nationers, there’s what Johnson allies refer to as ‘the God squad’. Despite Michael Gove’s appeal for ‘Christian forgiveness’ over partygate, these MPs take more of an Old Testament view. Their concern, says one Johnson supporter, is that the Prime Minister is ‘not very moral’. Notably, Gary Streeter, a devout Christian, has already sent his letter in.

This week One Nation MPs were disappointed with Johnson’s defensive mini reshuffle because only loyalists were promoted. ‘Boris could have brought back a popular One Nationer like Robert Buckland,’ says one MP. ‘These are the MPs most on the brink, but nothing has actually been given to them.’

The One Nation group meets weekly. Their dinners can cause alarm among the whips — the core membership of 40 swells on certain evenings. Many One Nationers are former ministers from the Theresa May years (Damian Green, who was effectively May’s deputy, is a prime example) with little loyalty to the current Prime Minister. They have the numbers to push a candidate in any leadership contest.

But do they have the organisation? ‘The European Research Group tend to assume that the One Nation group is their opposite number,’ says a member. ‘It’s not. The One Nation group doesn’t organise anything.’ Another MP calls them the ‘most polite plotters’ you could find.

Tom Tugendhat — a critic of the PM and a One Nationer — is the only MP who has publicly expressed an interest in running for Tory leader. But his lack of ministerial experience means his chances are slim. His decision to declare his ambitions has led to more pressure on Jeremy Hunt, who came second to Johnson in the 2019 leadership race, to make his intentions clear. ‘Jeremy is currently standing dutifully above the fray but colleagues are approaching him asking him to pull the curtain on this,’ says a senior Tory.

Before any of this could happen, Johnson would need to lose a vote of no-confidence. Although the One Nationers are viewed as the rebels who could trigger such a vote, they would need more MPs on the right of the party to turn on Johnson for him to lose. No. 10 is aware of this danger, which perhaps explains why Brexiteer MPs — such as James Duddridge and Joy Morrissey — were appointed as parliamentary aides to the Prime Minister in this week’s reshuffle.

The One Nation group fear that Johnson could soon be forced into throwing more red meat at Tory right-wingers just to stay in office. For example, the ERG wants to see a more aggressive approach on Brexit. There are whispers that Johnson could be talked into triggering Article 16, which would suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol (he now openly threatens this in parliament). This would risk the collapse of the Brexit deal with the European Union. Such a move could cause many MPs in the One Nation group to send in their letters for a leadership vote, regardless of what they think the result would be.

The uneasy peace at Westminster could collapse at any time. The Tory tribes are keen to battle each other because they all believe they’re fighting for the party’s soul. Whether the party could survive such a fight is another matter entirely.

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