The Conservative leadership is playing a risky game, particularly with its future in Scotland
As self-destructive opening moves go, it would be hard to beat Theresa May’s folly of calling a general election she said she wouldn’t call, announcing a really unpopular care policy that would hit the party’s core voters, then losing the slim majority the party had, all the while delaying progress on the most significant negotiation the country had faced in decades.
But Boris Johnson – not one to be outdone on anything – has already managed to exceed this.
Johnson’s opening gambit of proroguing parliament in the hope of avoiding opposition to a no-deal Brexit on 31 October so annoyed MPs that he lost 24 from his party in just a couple of weeks.
It started with GP and former government minister Phillip Lee, who crossed the floor to the Lib Dems during Johnson’s first address to parliament in protest over the pursuit of a no-deal Brexit, leaving the government without a majority, even with DUP support.
Then 21 MPs, including such high-profile figures as former chancellor Philip Hammond, party veterans Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames, as well as former ministers David Gauke, Dominic Grieve and Greg Clark, were thrown out of the party for voting with the opposition to take control of the parliamentary agenda to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson’s own brother, Jo Johnson, then resigned as a minister and signalled his intention to stand down as an MP, pointedly citing conflict between “family loyalty and national interest” – although he is expected to continue as a Conservative MP until the next election.
And finally work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd resigned both as a minister and from the parliamentary party, leaving the Conservatives in parliament with a majority of minus 45, even with the support of the DUP, or minus 65 if the DUP go against them.
There was nothing about the Prime Minister’s brother resigning that could possibly not be damaging, and on the day that Johnson had hoped to launch a general election campaign at a police academy in Yorkshire, instead, he found himself bombarded with questions about his brother.
Rudd’s resignation from the government and party over the treatment of her 21 colleagues who had had the whip removed also caused some disturbance.
She described the treatment of the rebel MPs as an “assault on decency and democracy” and an “act of political vandalism”, while she also confirmed what many had already suspected, that Johnson had not really been attempting to get a new Brexit deal at all.
Rudd said: “This has been a difficult decision. I joined your cabinet in good faith, accepting that ‘no deal’ had to be on the table, because it was the means by which we would have the best chance of achieving a new deal by 31 October.
“However, I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the government’s main objective.”
Add to that losing a by-election, being defeated in his first seven votes in parliament and failing twice to get the general election he needs, and Johnson has left the parliamentary Conservative party in a difficult situation and in a more uncertain place going into an election than surely he would have wished.
The party is technically in power but in dire need of an election if it is to continue to govern.
But while a general election in late October would have been ideal for the Conservatives, one in November or later could be much less so.
A late-October election would have dissolved parliament in the lead-up to 31 October, preventing any late-stage interference by MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit or force a request for an extension, while also occurring when it was clear that Johnson was going to deliver on his promise that Britain would leave the EU then but before any inconvenient effects had begun to be felt.
But now the risk, for Johnson, is the election may be held when either the UK has not left the EU as promised or the country has just left without a deal and is being hit by the full force of the kind of no-deal Brexit chaos predicted in Yellowhammer.
For the party in England, that is a gamble that its strategists will surely feel is worth taking.
In a largely dual-party system, despite recent electoral wins by the SNP and Lib Dems, and the Conservatives sitting at several points below where they were in 2017 in most recent opinion polls, the hope will be that expected losses in some areas of the country will be offset by gains from Labour, with the Brexit Party threat seen off by Brexit delivered – and it could pay off.
But it’s a different story in Scotland.
All this has left the Scottish Conservatives somewhere between a rock and a hard place. Ruth Davidson’s resignation leaves the party weakened, after several years of making her the figurehead, and although she studiously avoided attributing her disagreements with Johnson to her decision to stand down, coming as it did the day after he prorogued parliament, the optics didn’t look good.
The direction the UK party has taken has left the Scottish party with a difficult choice, as it selects a new leader, of aligning to Johnson’s vision, no matter how damaging it may be on home territory, or pursuing a differentiated agenda as a Scottish unionist party.
It’s also been uncomfortable recently for members of the Scottish party having the political neutrality of the Scottish courts questioned, as apparent criticism from a Downing Street source attests.
But of particular concern is the party’s likely wipe-out in Scotland in any forthcoming general election.
A recent YouGov poll for The Times predicted that the Tories would lose 10 of their current 13 seats in Scotland, while another YouGov poll, this time for the People’s Vote campaign, suggests that the Tories could lose all their Scottish seats.
While Johnson’s strategy of pursuing a no-deal Brexit could work for the Conservatives across the UK as a whole, an agenda that potentially undermines the union, with the continued message that what Scotland thinks doesn’t matter, and the potential loss of all the Tory Scottish seats at Westminster, is a severe threat to the party here.
Davidson herself warned that the treatment of the 21 rebels and the narrowing the party is a “big risk” because voters need to see that it is a “broad church with lots of different types of people from different backgrounds”.
It’s not checkmate yet, but Johnson’s opening moves have not put him in the winning position he clearly thought they would.