Johnson reassures Tory MPs no-deal Brexit pledge will not be election policy

Rowena Mason and Kate Proctor
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Centrist Tory MPs believe they have extracted a promise from Boris Johnson that he will not go into an election arguing for a no-deal Brexit and would never make a pact with Nigel Farage, after warning him they could not stand on such a platform.

Damian Green, the leader of the One Nation group of 80 Tory MPs, told the Guardian Johnson “looked [him] in the eye” as he pledged the party would not shift to endorsing a no-deal Brexit as the Conservatives’ central policy.

Green said he believed Johnson’s reassurances, after he and Gillian Keegan, James Brokenshire and Victoria Prentis met the prime minister in Downing Street to deliver the message that large numbers of Tory MPs would find a no-deal policy unacceptable.

“We went in to say that no deal as the prime aim of government policy would be unacceptable in a manifesto and we were reassured that wasn’t the prime minister’s aim, that he still wants to get a deal now and still thinks that would be the best outcome. He has no intention of putting a no-deal policy in a manifesto,” Green said.

“This arose from a meeting of the One Nation caucus earlier in the week. It was the principal point and we also wanted to be assured again that the Conservative party wouldn’t do a deal with the Brexit party.

“We looked each other in the eye. I accept and believe the reassurances,” he added. “We accept that no deal has to be a possibility and the One Nation caucus has by and large always been supportive of the government’s policy. What we want is for that to continue.”

Downing Street made no comment on the meeting but some insiders thought Green had “overinterpreted” Johnson’s position and the party may yet opt for an explicitly no deal platform to maximise its support from leave voters.

Centrist Tory MPs are worried about what would happen if the party had to fight an election before Brexit has happened, after being forced into a three-month extension by the Benn act.

Publicly, Johnson will not concede this is a possibility because he insists Brexit will happen on 31 October but most MPs think this is the central scenario – that his government will have to submit to the delay, possibly following a court order, and then he will immediately challenge Labour to an election to be held in late November.

Green and the other One Nation MPs demanded the meeting after a furious backlash among Conservative backbenchers against a briefing from an unnamed No 10 source that suggested the Tories would have to pivot to a no-deal position to outflank Farage.

“To marginalise the Brexit party, we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’.”

Johnson told the centrist MPs at the meeting to “listen to me, not the briefings”, which is the same line he said to Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, when she raised the issue of the anonymous source messages in cabinet on Tuesday. The briefing in question is widely believed to have come from Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, who is driving his Brexit policy.

Johnson’s chief whip, Mark Spencer, and his parliamentary private secretary, James Heappey, have received a series of complaints in the past 24 hours from backbench MPs who say they cannot stand on a no-deal platform.

Expectations that up to 50 Tories would choose not stand for their party at the next election in protest could be an underestimate, according to one source. They said the group of 80 One Nation Tories were extremely worried about the government’s potential direction.

One backbencher said: “It’s pretty much the only conversation taking place on the backbenches at the moment and it’s going down very poorly. The whole One Nation group would struggle with it. I do not see that there’s a democratic mandate based on a 52-48 referendum result for a no-deal Brexit.

“People are kicking off about it. I really don’t see it’s going to be the policy. It’s a non-starter. There will be a haemorrhaging of Conservative members of parliament if this happens – they won’t stand.”

Asked whether they would consider their own position, they said: “Yeah, I do feel like that.”

Another Tory MP said: “There is lots of worry. Many MPs don’t agree conceptually with it. Others think it paints us as extreme and not friendly to floating voters.”

There are more than 100 MPs on the One Nation Tory WhatsApp group and many are said to have written comments critical of Johnson’s potential strategy overnight.

The MP said they could not stand back and accept such a position because the “union would unravel like a gyroscope” and there would be a significant increase to the national debt.

“Do I want my kids in the playground being told by another kid that their mum or dad lost their job because of your parent?” they said.

Benn act

Another backbencher said they did not believe Johnson would really pursue a no-deal Brexit and would simply go back to the public with a strategy of getting the deal done should he get a majority, and explain to voters that he would immediately overturn the Benn act, which compels him to request an extension to Brexit.

“I don’t believe for a second we will have a policy of no deal,” they said.

The former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve who now sits as an independent, described the No 10 memo sent to the Spectator as “propaganda”.

He said: “This is a government that is now no longer governing in the traditional sense – it is engaging in propaganda.”

He said the Benn act, which requires the PM to ask for an extension from the EU if there is no agreement by 19 October, remained watertight.

Should Johnson try to get round it, he said the alliance of MPs campaigning against no deal were in a “reasonable place” to counter him.

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