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Brexit: Deselection outraged many but could it help Boris unify the Conservatives?

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Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, July 24, 2019.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, July 24, 2019. -
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On 23 July, Philip Hammond held the second highest political office in Britain - six weeks later and he is no longer a member of the Conservative party.

Hammond joined 22 other rebel Tory MPs Tuesday who defied Boris Johnson and backed a call to take control of the parliamentary agenda and force the prime minister to rule out a no deal Brexit.

One of them, Philip Lee, defected to the Liberal Democrats, while the other 21 backed the opposition.

Many may have thought Boris Johnson was bluffing when he threatened to withdraw the Conservative party whip from rebel MPs - but last night the PM made good on his threat.

Having withdrawn the whip from the revels - effectively expelling them from the party - Johnson was left Tuesday with a deficit of 20 in the Commons, having started the day with a majority of one.

Read More: ‘No to no-deal Brexit’: the 21 Tory rebels who defied Boris Johnson

He has now faces a coalition of opposition figures led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who wants to introduce legislation to force Johnson to extend Article 50 and prevent no deal on October 31.

Lined up alongside the Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party MPs opposed to no deal, will be the 21 former Conservative allies, among them former ministers and the UK's longest-serving MP, Ken Clarke.

Loyalists

Having the whip withdrawn means that these MPs - among them Ken Clarke, Phillip Hammond, and Justine Greening - will not be able to stand as Conservatives in an election.

Some have said they will stand down, others will run as independents.

But while the move has been described as a split in the Conservative party, to describe it as a split in the party my be a step too far. While the rebels included some senior figures, 95% of Conservative MPs voted with Boris Johnson, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

The deselection of 21 MPs that have been hostile to Boris Johnson’s project could present the opportunity for him to parachute loyalists into safe Conservative seats, although there is the chance that local constituencies opt to support their incumbent MPs as independents.

It is unlikely that the rebels will be allowed back into the party, said Bale, which is “not a good look - at least in terms of the signal it sends to moderate, no-deal opposing Conservative voters.”

That said, “I think we need to be very careful before assuming that this changes the Tory Party forever: just because they're choosing to fight any imminent election as some sort of ersatz Brexit Party, doesn't mean they'll fight the election after that in the same guise.”