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How the Tory party lost its parliamentary majority to Brexit (and other rifts)

From Nick Boles’ speech after the indicative votes, to Dr Phillip Lee crossing the chamber this week, power has been ebbing away from Boris Johnson and the Tory party.

Former prime minister Theresa May (back row third right) looks on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement on the G7.
Former prime minister Theresa May (back row third right) looks on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement on the G7.
Image: UK Parliament

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson had his slim parliamentary majority decimated to nothing – just as he was giving his opening statement at his first Prime Minister’s Questions.

At the time of the EU referendum in June 2016, the David Cameron-led Conservative Party held 331 seats in a House of Commons of 650 members.

When you take the four non-voting members of the House (which includes the Speaker John Bercow), and the seven Sinn Féin MPs who abstain, that leaves 639 voting members, making 320 a simple majority.

But now, this is what the makeup of the House of Commons looks like:

Government majority As of this week, the government's working majority. Source: House of Commons

Johnson lost the vote on Oliver Letwin’s motion to take back control of the parliamentary agenda by 27 votes; the following night Johnson lost the vote on Hilary Benn’s bill to compel the UK to ask the EU for an extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 October by 29 votes – an increasingly widening chasm between Johnson’s power and the opposition’s pushback. 

But that disintegrating of parliamentary clout didn’t happen overnight – here’s how it ebbed away form the Tory party over months and years, mostly because of Brexit.

That 2017 snap election

After triggering Article 50 on 13 March 2017, UK Prime Minister Theresa May tried to capitalise on the perceived weakness of the Labour party and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations by increasing her majority in parliament.

She called a snap general election for 8 June based on polls that said support for her government had spiked.

Instead, the Conservative Party lost their parliamentary majority, winning 318 seats, though one is a speaker and one a deputy speaker, which left May with 316 voting Tory MPs.

She was forced to strike a deal with the DUP’s 10 MPs, promising £1 billion in funding for Northern Ireland as payment for a majority of 326, and a working majority of 13.

(The opposition was 315 MPs strong, with two non-voting members bringing their total to 313 in June 2017.)

Three in one go

In February 2019, three Tory MPs left the party to join the newly formed Independent Group. They were Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston.

“Brexit has redefined the Conservative Party,” a joint letter to Theresa May said, “undoing all the efforts to modernise it. There has been a dismal failure to stand up to the hard-line ERG which operates openly as a party within a party, with its own leader, whip and policy.”

Heidi Allen stood aside as leader of the party after its poor performance in the local elections, and Soubry took over.

Nick Boles

In the wake of the series of indicative votes on April Fool’s Day this year, pro-EU MP Nick Boles resigned from the party. Citing his reasons, he said:

I’ve given everything in an attempt to find a compromise. I accept I have failed. I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise. I regret therefore to announce I can no longer sit for this party.

That majority was reduced further for 30 days after the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr was suspended from the party following an investigation into two family holidays taken by Paisley in 2013 and allegedly paid for by the Sri Lankan government. 

Allegations

Conservative MPs Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths had the whip withdrawn from them following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, which they denied. The whip was restored ahead of a vote of confidence in Theresa May in December 2018.

Elphickle was charged with three counts of sexual assault against two women in July this year, and subsequently had the whip removed again.

Johnson’s selection 

In the aftermath of Johnson’s election on 23 July, senior Tories Anne Milton and David Gauke stepped aside from their government roles, and headed to the backbenches – a precursor to a later revolt they would take part in as members of the ’21 rebels’. 

By-election

In August, a by-election was held in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. Conservative MP Chris Davies had stood aside after becoming embroiled in an expenses scandal, and despite Johnson’s appearance on the election trail, the Tory seat was lost to the Liberal Democrat’s Jane Dodds, who received 13,826 votes to Davies’ 12,401.

“My very first act as MP when I arrive in Westminster will be to find Boris Johnson wherever he is hiding and tell him loud and clear – stop playing with the futures of our communities and rule out no-deal Brexit,” Dodds said.

That left the Tory majority at just one.

Taking a stand

As Boris Johnson spoke about his grande vision for the UK as Prime Minister, Dr Phillip Lee walked across the chamber and sat with the Liberal Democrats.

In his resignation letter to Johnson, Lee wrote that he was disappointed that the Tory party he had joined as a young man, led by John Major, “has increasingly become infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism”.

“Sadly, the Brexit process has helped transform this once great party into something more akin to a narrow faction, where an individual’s ‘conservatism’ is measured by how recklessly one wishes to leave the European Union,” he wrote. 

Of Lee’s decision to make such a statement of his departure, lecturer in politics at Trinity College Dublin Kevin Cunningham says that “theatrics and timing is certainly important in terms of motivating public opinion”.

“Lee was among the first to support a second referendum and has not wavered in his position. Unlike Nick Boles who disintegrated under the emotional strain in the conflict he had with his party, Lee has been more straightforward in his opposition to Brexit.

The last parliamentary session was exhausting. It is notable that MPs have returned with more energy and more disdain for one those on opposing sides. The great divide is certainly getting deeper.

The 21 Tory rebels

This divide has widened more dramatically since then. Although those 21 Tory rebels who have lost the whip are not kicked out of the party, they are unable to vote as members of the Conservative Party.

They are: Philip Hammond (former Chancellor), Dominic Grieve (former Attorney General), David Gauke (former justice secretary), Rory Stewart (former junior minister), Anne Milton (former junior minister), Sir Nicholas Soames (grandson of Winston Churchill), Sir Oliver Letwin, Alistair Burt, Greg Clark, Kenneth Clarke, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah, Guto Bebb, Richard Benyon, Steve Brine, Stephen Hammond,  Richard Harrington, Margot James, Caroline Nokes, Antoinette Sandbach, Edward Vaizey.

Although it’s possible for these members to have the whip reinstated, the immediate removal of the whip shatters Johnson’s voting power in parliament.

As it stands now, the Tories has 289 seats plus the DUP’s 10 seats (though they aren’t guaranteed to vote with the government). Labour has 247 MPs, the Scottish National Party has 35 and the Liberal Democrat has 16. This gives the government a majority of minus 43. 

This isn’t counting current Tory MPs who have said they won’t stand in the next election, which includes Dame Caroline Spelman, Michael Fallon, and Johnson’s own brother. 

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