Robert Peston asks: How will the rebel Tories decide whether to vote against Johnson?

Tory rebels are set to defy Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

“The crypto fascists are in charge”. So spoke one of the senior Tories planning to rebel tomorrow against Boris Johnson - which captures in its visceral anger the magnitude of the gulf between the new prime minister and those of his backbenchers who want a no-deal Brexit taken off the table.

This afternoon the Tory rebels will decide whether the threat from Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings, to remove the Tory whip and to ban them from running as official Tory candidates in the looming general election, will dissuade them from tomorrow voting with Labour, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid to seize control of what legislation is debated and enacted over the coming days (so that the rebels can pass a law that would compel the PM to ask the EU’s leaders for a six-month Brexit delay).

The 20ish Tories weighing whether to risk expulsion contain many heavyweights. In recent years they would have been seen as loyalists, the spine of May’s government. But their horror of leaving the EU makes them, for Johnson, the enemy within.

They are:

  • Philip Hammond

  • Greg Clark

  • David Lidington

  • Ken Clarke

  • David Gauke

  • Stephen Hammond

  • Antoinette Sandbach

  • Steve Brine

  • Ed Vaizey

  • Guto Bebb

  • Rory Stewart

  • Nick Soames

  • Dominic Grieve

  • Caroline Spelman

  • Oliver Letwin

  • Philip Lee

  • Sam Gyimah

  • Richard Harrington

  • Alistair Burt

  • Justine Greening

  • Sarah Newton

  • Anne Milton

They tell me that the factors each is weighing up include whether they are persuaded at the last by Johnson’s insistence that he cannot secure a Brexit deal from the EU - based on the abandonment of the backstop - unless and until the EU’s leaders are convinced his threat to exit without a deal is credible.

Phillip Hammond is one of the Tory MPs planning to rebel. Credit: PA

Given he was elected Tory leader largely on the basis of a single pledge, to extract the UK from the EU “deal or no deal” by 31 October, he sees it as wholly logical that if the rebels were to force a Brexit delay they would be voting that they have no confidence in him, and so would lose their right to be Tories.

Their response is that he is taking a mad gamble in expelling them, if he is sincere that he wants a Brexit deal, because they the anti-no-deal rebels are much more likely to vote for any deal he negotiates - having done so in the past for Theresa May - than the “serially disloyal” Brexiters of the European Research Group, who consistently rejected May’s deal.

Truthfully though few of them expect Johnson to get a Brexit deal by the end of October. They think no-deal is where the PM is heading. And therefore the judgement of some of them about whether to defy him is based to an extent on whether they or their families have become fed up with politics and will see expulsion as a welcome step to a different life.

And for others who relish the fight, there is the prospect of running as an independent Conservative candidate in a looming general election and endeavouring to humiliate Johnson at the ballot box - which could happen if they persuade the LibDems to give them a clear run in their respective constituencies.

Presumably Johnson has thought this through and has contingency plans. Given his current working majority is zero, according to parliament’s own website, he can barely govern as it is - and to lose even a handful of his colleagues to the opposition would fatally undermine his right to reside at Number 10.

Johnson is goading his colleagues to give him the election branding he craves, namely “Blue for True Brexit”, versus a rainbow of opposition parties and candidates who know only they don’t want him and his Brexit but cannot say in any simple and homogeneous way what they prefer.