Conservative rebels want Theresa May to lead a Brexit rebellion against Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law and rip up his deal with the EU

boris johnson theresa may
Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson.
  • Conservative MPs in Boris Johnson's government are growing increasingly frustrated with his leadership.
  • Johnson's plan to break international law and rip up his Brexit deal with the EU has triggered a rebellion among his party and the threat of legal action from Europe.
  • Rebel Conservative MPs are seeking to enlist Johnson's predecessor Theresa May to front the campaign against his plan.
  • Up to 30 Conservative MPs are set to rebel against the government in a parliamentary vote next week.
  • A Conservative party figure involved in drafting the amendment said they felt it had "a good chance of significant support."
  • The row comes amid widespread speculation about him being replaced as leader before the next general election.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Conservative Members of Parliament seeking to stop UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to break international law and dismantle his Brexit deal with the EU want to enlist his predecessor Theresa May to front the rebellion party sources have told Business Insider.

The former prime minister, who worked on negotiating the deal before handing over to Johnson in 2019, has already spoken publicly against Johnson's plan in the House of Commons this week.

May is unlikely to personally front any rebellion against Johnson next week, given she is reportedly set to miss the vote on Johnson's plan due to take place next week.

However, Johnson's plan has already triggered his premiership's biggest rebellion to date, with two other former Conservative leaders - John Major and Michael Howard - joining a growing list of party grandees unhappy with his plan.

The rebellion is a sign of growing discontent with Johnson among Conservative MPs amid widespread speculation that he could be forced to stand down before the end of his term, following a sometimes chaotic first year as prime minister.

Boris Johnson's annus horribilis

boris johnson
Johnson began 2020 promising that it would be a "fantastic year for Britain".

However, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the country harder than almost any other in the developed world, with the prime minister and several members of his top team also falling ill with the virus.

Multiple controversies, including most notably the revelation that his own chief of staff had broken lockdown rules, have marred Johnson's premiership.

However, despite everything, the prime minister can be grateful that his support among the British public hasn't taken that much of a dip.

The same cannot be said for his backbench Conservative members of parliament, however. Fresh from a summer of multiple U-turns on major issues including exam grades and masks, MPs returned to parliament from summer recess this month in an increasingly restless mood, with dwindling reserves of support for Johnson and his team.

That restlessness is likely to be compounded by the twin threats that Johnson faces as winter approaches: an alarming rise in the number of coronavirus cases and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Both crises threaten Johnson's standing in his party and the country and could bring an early end to his premiership.

The Conservative party is growing restless

Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, walks along Whitehall in London, Britain, September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, walks along Whitehall in London, Britain, September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Johnson's future, as PM by any reasonable measure, should not be in doubt.

He was elected as prime minister with a sizeable 80-seat majority in December, a resounding victory which all but silenced his critics within the Conservative party and won him dozens of loyal MPs, both among the old guard and the new intake.

But there is a widespread recognition in Westminster that Johnson's Downing Street has made little effort to foster relations with Conservative MPs since. The prime minister has only properly addressed the 1922 committee of backbenchers twice since then, which has not gone unnoticed.

The task has undoubtedly been made harder by the coronavirus, which sent MPs home from parliament and has removed the usual collegiate atmosphere of Westminster that helps foster relations between backbench MPs and government whips and ministers.

Others suspect the reason is that senior figures in Johnson's circle, including his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, simply aren't very interested in maintaining good relationships with Conservative MPs.

"To believe that you've also got to believe that they actually worry about their relationships with Conservative MPs," one former minister told Business Insider.

In a sign of how fractious Downing Street's relationship with Conservative MPs has become in recent weeks, it has asked them to refrain from sending public letters about causes they want to promote, even when they are in line with government policy.

One MP was surprised this summer to receive a call from their party whip (an individual charged with maintaining party discipline on behalf of the government) on a Saturday, only to receive a stern "telling off" for signing a seemingly innocuous letter in support of a local industry.

There was also bemusement among MPs last week when Downing Street reprimanded a handful of them for signing a letter condemning human rights abuse against the Uighur people by China.

Johnson risks defeat on Brexit

Boris Johnson

Downing Street's frostiness with its MPs is already damaging discipline.

Anger with the government among Conservative backbenchers boiled over this week when it announced an explosive plan to break international law by unilaterally changing parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated with the EU through legislation called the Internal Market Bill.

Only a small handful of Conservative MPs criticized the government publicly. However, these included former Conservative prime minister Theresa May who asked how other countries could trust the UK to respect international agreements in the future if Johnson went ahead with the plan. It also included former Conservative prime minister John Major and former Conservative leader Michael However.

According to party sources, there was also widespread anger behind the scenes, with senior MPs making their feelings known in meetings with government whips. Conservative MPs told Business Insider that some Cabinet ministers were distancing themselves from the move in private conversations and saying Downing Street was utterly responsible.

One of those Conservative MPs who publicly opposed the plan, Bob Neil, has tabled an amendment to the bill, seeking to give parliament a veto over the plan.

The Times of London reported on Friday that up to 30 Conservative MPs were set to rebel against the government and support the amendment. Johnson's majority of 80 means at least 40 Conservative MPs would need to back the amendment to be successful.

One party figure involved in the amendment said they felt it had "a good chance of significant support because it's not a very antagonistic amendment."

They said: "The Liberal Democrats have tabled amendments to delete those clauses from the bill. This keeps them in but adds another hurdle before they come into force. I suspect the Twitter lawyers will want something stronger but this isn't 2019 anymore."

A backbencher who is planning to support the amendment said: "It's not the perfect amendment but it's a way of showing dissatisfaction ... There's more disquiet among colleagues than people realize."

Multiple party sources have also told Business Insider that there is an effort among Conservative rebels to make Theresa May their figurehead. They say that the ex-prime minister is one of parliament's most credible voices when it comes to the Brexit deal as her government negotiated most of it before she resigned.

That belief is compounded because the government's majority is not as strong as it appears, according to one Conservative staffer. Party discipline broke down under Theresa May and many of those MPs who participated in parliamentary rebellions developed a taste for it, which they may yet rediscover.

Additionally, many influential backbench MPs like David Davis, Jeremy Hunt, and Greg Clarke do not appear likely to be elevated to frontbench positions in an administration that values loyalty above talent. They may accordingly be more inclined to vote according to their consciences on issues like Brexit and coronavirus restrictions. 

The government also faces a growing backbench rebellion over its recent decision to ban social gatherings of more than 6, according to James Forsyth, the Spectator magazine's political editor. He reports that the party's libertarian wing — usually led by figures including David Davis and Steve Baker — is furious with the decision. It could result in an even larger rebellion against the government than on Brexit. 

Caught between the coronavirus and Brexit crises, Johnson's premiership is about to face its biggest two tests yet, either one of which could spell the beginning of the end of his time at the top.

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