A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK parliament’s parliamentary recording unit shows UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PARLIAMENTARY RECORDING UNIT/AFP
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK parliament’s parliamentary recording unit shows UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PARLIAMENTARY RECORDING UNIT/AFP

London — Just two months ago Rory Stewart was a cabinet minister and a contender for leader of the Conservative Party.

On Tuesday night he was being presented with GQ magazine’s politician of the year award when he received a text message saying he had been expelled from the party. His crime was to defy Prime Minister Boris Johnson and vote in the House of Commons to try to block a no-deal Brexit.

“It feels a little bit like something one associates with other countries,” Stewart told the BBC on Wednesday. “This is a passing phase in the history of the Conservative Party,” he said hopefully.

But far from being a passing phase, the purge — in which 21 MPs were stripped of the party whip (effectively barring them from standing at a forthcoming general election as Tories) — is the latest chapter in a civil war over Europe that has dominated the party for decades. When David Cameron became party leader in 2006, he warned that voters were deterred by Tories “banging on about Europe”. Now membership of the party — in parliament at least — is defined by it.

Stewart was summarily dismissed, alongside two former chancellors of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond, and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames in the biggest purge over Europe since the 1990s. Most of the rebels back Brexit in principle, but will not allow Johnson to leave without a deal.

They voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU and watched as Brexiteer rebels wrecked that agreement by refusing to back it in parliament. Now many of those anti-EU rebels sit in the cabinet and the MPs opposed to a no-deal divorce have been thrown out.

“What’s different here is that the calibre of MPs who have lost the whip is in stark contrast to the calibre who lost it in rebellions over Europe in the 1990s,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, referring to John Major’s action against rebels over their opposition to the Maastricht Treaty. “There are some very, very big beasts who have lost the whip.”

Ruth Davidson, who was credited with reviving the party’s fortunes in Scotland before her resignation last week, tweeted her support for ensuring that the party remains a broad church. A campaigner for Remain in the EU referendum, her success north of the border was in part because she appealed beyond traditional Tory voters.

And Clarke, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet and as chancellor under Major, said he does not know if he can bring himself to even vote for the party under its current leader.

“I have to decide whether to vote Conservative if Boris Johnson is still the leader. That’s my next problem,” Clarke said in a TV interview on Tuesday night. “I am a Conservative, of course I am. But this leader, I don’t recognise this. It’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.”

Arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg outraged MPs by lolling on the front bench of the House of Commons during Tuesday’s debate and accusing MPs of “arrogance” for trying to block a no-deal Brexit.

On Twitter, Labour MP Anna Turley called him “the physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect and contempt for our parliament”. Earlier in the day Phillip Lee defected from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats, citing Rees-Mogg’s attitude as one of his reasons.

Bale said the latest explosion of divisions in the party does not necessarily mean it faces terminal decline.

“Ninety-five percent of Tory MPs voted with the government last night, so this is not the Tory party split down the middle,” Bale said. “The Tory Party is the world’s oldest and most successful political party, it will dust itself off and start again as it has done several times over the centuries.”

Bloomberg