Britain’s Conservative party descended into open warfare this week as allegations of lockdown parties in Downing Street inspired a group of Boris Johnson’s newest MPs to move against him.
Some 20 backbench MPs who entered parliament in 2019 were behind an effort to convince colleagues to submit letters seeking a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Dubbed the “pork pie plot” in a nod to the Melton Mowbray constituency of ringleader Alicia Kearns, the group hoped that the number of letters submitted to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, would reach the threshold of 54 needed to trigger the vote.
“There are some who say that we owe our seats to Boris, but in reality the groundwork for our 2019 win was built in 2017,” says one member of the 2019 intake. “Boris was just one of many factors. Brexit, the threat of Corbyn, all played a role. I think the party can win without him.”
The 2019 intake comprised of 107 Tory MPs who are often seen as representing the so-called “red wall” seats of former Labour heartlands. However, a significant number entered parliament after winning some of the safest Tory seats in England’s home counties.
“They’re not one homogenous group, there are factions, so traditional Tory seats, some former spads [special advisers], some ‘red wallers’, a handful of returners”, notes one MP. “Lots of them are very clear that they owe their jobs to him [Johnson]. Some of them just have egos the size of planets.”
Many of the so-called plotters won their seats by promising to tackle local concerns and were selected from within their constituencies, rather than by Conservative party HQ. Their loyalty is to their constituents, not the prime minister, say colleagues.
“They are a most impressive intake”, observed one former cabinet minister. “Self confident and able because in most cases they have successfully won a reputation as local champions who won their seats against the odds.
“They are also clear in what they want and expect from Boris and I’m afraid they see him as having woefully fallen short.”
The 2019 rebels
MP for Rutland and Melton is regarded as a rising star within the Conservative party after she won a majority of more than 20,000 in 2019. She sits on the national security strategy committee, the foreign affairs select committee and is a member of the backbench China Research Group, which scrutinises the UK government’s response to the superpower.
Before joining Westminster, the MP for West Dorset was a prominent figure in the rail sector and held roles such as the head of new trains at South Western Railway. In 2019, Loder succeeded former cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin, winning a majority of 14,106 over his Liberal Democrat opponent.
The rebels gathered twice this week to discuss their disquiet over the Johnson’s leadership, with Kearns’ office — which she shares with Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield — used for a meeting on Tuesday. Among the group were West Dorset MP Chris Loder and Birmingham Northfield MP Gary Sambrook. Kearns and Loder have both denied leading a rebellion.
Colleagues claim the pandemic, which forced parliamentarians to work remotely, has made MPs who are actively plotting against Johnson “harder to control”.
“There’s something about Covid and having not been here”, noted one Tory MP. “I don’t think they’ve built the same camaraderie or sense of team with the rest of the party, haven’t had same engagement with government or whips. It’s harder to control them.”
Another MP elected in 2019 agreed: “Part of the problem is you get to know colleagues in the tea rooms, on the select committees, in passing and because of Covid that hasn’t really been possible.”
Some within the cohort feel they have been ignored by the prime minister until he needed them. “There was a lot of goodwill between the new intake and the PM at the very beginning. What we achieved electorally was remarkable,” said one MP from the 2019 intake. “Since then there has been a shocking lack of communication with Number 10 — until very recently.”
The age and outlook of the newest intake has also affected their outlook. More diverse in sex, ethnicity and political outlook than older Conservative MPs, they represent the first generation of millennial Tories. This cohort is more active than older colleagues on social media, which some MPs say can distort their perspective.
The 2019 rebels
Anderson holds a majority of 5,733 in his ‘red wall’ seat of Ashfield. He comes from a coal mining family and grew up in the region, joining the Conservative party in 2018 after years as a member of the Labour party. Before his 2019 election win, his seat had been represented by Labour for more than 20 years.
MP for Birmingham, Northfield, Sambrook holds a slim majority of 1,640, having fought off a Labour opponent who had represented the seat since 1992. Since coming into Westminster, Sambrook has become an influential backbencher and is executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs.
“That cohort can have a knee-jerk reaction to 200 constituents posting on Twitter, or sending angry emails”, said one MP. “They forget they actually represent thousands of voters.”
Critics of the plotters argue they are naive to have moved so quickly and publicly against Johnson, with more experienced MPs biding their time and waiting for civil servant Sue Gray’s report into lockdown parties in Downing Street.
“There’s something about being new, a bit green and naive, and possibly not really understanding implications or processes, whereas those who went through the Theresa May era are probably are a bit more wary,” said one Tory MP. “It took us nine months from the first discussion on letters to get a confidence vote [on the former prime minister], which she then won.”
But the plotters have already turned their focus on who could succeed Johnson if their coup removes him from office. Many believe they support Liz Truss, foreign secretary. “She is certainly popular among our intake and has made an effort to woo us”, noted one.
Others believe Chancellor Rishi Sunak would be a better counter to Johnson. One member of the 2019 intake said:
“We don’t know when a leadership election may be, but what is clear is that the Johnson administration thrives on chaos. We’ll need a steady pair of hands as the next leader — someone like Sunak could be that person.”