A Tory witch hunt for MPs held responsible for ousting Johnson?

Has a purge of the Tory 'moderates' begun, and how will the Brexit ultras respond to Sunak's post-Brexit Northern Ireland deal?

Right-Wing Watch

Are Boris Johnson loyalists within the Tory party seeking payback on anyone who helped oust him? And what next for the purge of the Tory ‘moderates’ now Sunak appears to be closing in on a new Brexit deal on Northern Ireland?  Or will it be the Brexit ultras on the receiving end of the purging by Sunak and his allies?

Concerns that ‘grassroot revenge’ aimed at ‘moderate’ Tories seen as disloyal to Johnson surfaced when Damian Green failed to be selected for the new Weald of Kent seat. Green has been an MP for Ashford since 1997. He was effectively deputy prime minister under Theresa May and has been described as a ‘prominent anti-Boris activist’ responsible for forcing him ‘out of Downing Street.’  Green is chairman of the ‘One Nation Conservatives’, a parliamentary group of Tory party MPs who advocate for the preservation of established institutions and traditional principles within a political democracy. He has been a leading figure among the centrist wing of the party. During the leadership bid in the summer, he supported Tom Tugendhat, who was considered the ’moderate’ candidate in the race. When Tugendhat was knocked out of the contest, Green went on to back Sunak.

‘Revenge of the membership?’

Fuelling speculation that ‘moderate’ Green’s deselection had something to do with revenge for Boris were David Campbell Bannerman’s comments. Campbell Bannerman is the founder and chairman of the new Tory pressure group, the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO). Led by Brexiteers and Johnson loyalists, the group was launched after Rishi Sunak was appointed leader of the party and therefore prime minister. It has the backing of former home secretary Priti Patel and big party donor Lord Cruddas, and is aimed at “restoring democracy” within the party.

The OCD chairman said the deselection was a sign that local groups want to “punish” MPs who opposed the former PM.

“There is now hard evidence MPs allegedly associated with bringing down Boris are being directly held to account and punished by members,” Campbell Bannerman tweeted

Talking on Times Radio’s Matt Chorley programme, Campbell Bannerman said that, “what we’re facing are about 60 MPs [who were] determined to bring down Boris and bring down Liz Truss under any circumstances.” He continued that he thinks it’s right for the selection process to hold the MPs who were determined to bring down Johnson to account, “Because they’ve done enormous damage.”

Not everyone however within the pressure group cites revenge over Johnson’s downfall as being behind the decision not to select Damian Green for the candidacy. The group’s vice-president Lord Greenhalgh tweeted: “This had nothing to do with Boris Johnson but more to do with a system of selection / deselection of MPs that needs fundamental reform … Damian Green has been a force for good for decades.”

Though, as Campbell Bannerman was quick to point out, Green’s ousting is not an isolated case. In  February, Sally Ann-Hart, Tory MP for Hastings and Rye and a fellow Johnson opponent, announced that her local Conservative association had voted not to reselect her to stand for the seat.

A third Tory MP who did not support Boris Johnson was also not reselected to stand for her seat. Theo Clarke, MP for Stafford and niece of Jacob Rees-Mogg, said she was ‘deeply disappointed’ not to have been chosen by the Stafford Conservative Association as the party’s candidate to fight for a revised version of her current seat. Clarke had quit as trade envoy to Kenya in July 2022, in protest of Boris Johnson’s leadership.

On March 5, the Guardian reported that a Tory MP who wished to remain anonymous had been warned that he potentially faces being deposed by his local association before the next election. The MP fears that Conservative members are in revolt against their own party, and that it was made clear to him that his support for Johnson’s removal was the key reason for his possible deselection by his local party.

“I have nothing against the man. It was only because of the damage he was doing to the party. But some members – and it doesn’t take many to make trouble – are now after me for supposed treachery. If we’re turning into the sort of party where this happens, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.”

The three dubious unseatings in the spate of just a few weeks got ConservativeHome’s editor Paul Goodman joining the conversation about local Tory members potentially seeking revenge over Boris Johnson. ‘MP deselections and non-selections. First, Hart. Happenstance. Then Green. Coincidence. Now Theo Clarke. Enemy action?’ Goodman provocatively asked in the headline of a piece on the deselections. Though, the overall message of the article is that it is wiser to discount “the usual claims by the usual suspects” that deselection decisions are connected to the fall of Boris Johnson.

Barking up the same tree was an article in another right-wing publication, the Spectator. Diary editor James Heale suggestively hinted that Green’s rejection is a sign of things to come. Though the gist of Heale’s argument is against the idea that those who turned their back on Johnson are being punished, noting how other than two MPs – I make it three – it is not a uniform trend. The author contends that it is a mistake by some pundits to conflate loyalty to Johnson with discontent at the party machine.

True or otherwise, it is difficult to ignore that the CDO was set up by Johnson allies and many who have joined the group are deeply sceptical of Sunak’s leadership. Harry Newton, a 32-year-old CDO supporter who sits on the executive of the Conservative Disability Group, told the Telegraph that the ousting of both Johnson and Truss left him “desperately sad” as a free marketeer on the Tory Right.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “I hate that the men in grey suits have so much power. I was a big supporter of Boris, I still am a big supporter of him, and I was an even bigger supporter of Liz Truss.

“They were on the right side, and it was a shame that the parliamentary party had other ideas. I honestly believe the only way we can turn it around is to bring Boris back. I think the May elections are going to be a crucial acid test.”

The fact that the next election is to be held under revised constituency boundaries, with many seats disappearing altogether or changing shape, is certainly an added complication in seat selection process. Though arguing that the deselection of Green and others has more to do with boundary changes and little about revenge for Boris, could be naïve.  Afterall, being in a party whose MPs have removed three prime ministers in less than four years, and with a current unelected leader, Tory members have plenty to be rebellious about.

The Peak District rumours

Rumours have also been whirling that Johnson, seeking a safer seat in parliament than his current Uxbridge and South Ruislip, is planning on heading north and has his eyes on the Peak District seat, the Derbyshire Dales. Sarah Dines was elected as the Tory MP for the constituency in 2019 with a healthy 17,381 majority. Ex-West Derbyshire MP Matthew Parris wrote that Johnson “wants to scuttle from Uxbridge” and stand in Derbyshire Dales. Though Parris, who is a columnist for the Times, added that “on balance” he doubted the rumours.  “But should Johnson ever stand here I shall be pleased to add to the general merriment by putting up against the charlatan myself, if that would help foil his cunning plan. I may have to form my own party, and will welcome suggestions for its name,” Parris wrote in his Times’ column.

And then there is Sunak’s new Brexit deal to consider.

 ‘The Windsor Framework’

“F*ck the Americans,” was Boris Johnson’s reported response after being urged to back Rishi Sunak’s deal with the EU aimed at easing trade friction in Northern Ireland. The rant was made when the former PM was in conversation with the softly spoken Remainer Sir Robert Buckland. According to the Express, the remark was in reference to suggestions that Sunak’s willingness to ‘compromise on Brexit’ stemmed from a need to appease US President Joe Biden.

The new ‘Windsor framework’ deal rewrites the Northern Ireland Protocol, which itself took years – and two prime ministers – to thrash out. The proposal includes some degree of EU oversight of trade in the UK. It also aims to placate NI unionists with the ‘Stormont brake,’ a clause with enables Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly to, in certain circumstances, block new EU regulations.

Using deliberately antagonistic, anti-EU language, a separate article in the Express claims that Sunak faces ‘Brexit rebellion’ as the ‘Windsor framework’ deal with EU ‘does not cut the mustard’ for the DUP. The article quotes DUP MP Ian Paisley, who told the BBC’s political editor Nicholas Watt, that the deal “provides no basis for the DUP to go back into government and Rishi Sunak needs to enter fresh negotiations with the EU.”

So, it didn’t take long for the Brexit and Boris-backing Express to make its views clear on Sunak’s new Brexit deal. But the proposal has generally been well received by Tory MPs, even by some Brexiteers.

Though not by everyone.

The first to hit out, was the most loyal of the Boris Johnson loyalists. Nadine Dorries lashed out at Steve Baker over Sunak’s deal. Dubbed the ‘Brexit hard man,’ the minister for Northern Ireland and former chair of the ultra-Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), revealed his backing for the agreement. Dorries’ claimed Baker had ‘no choice’ but to support Sunak after he was a ‘key agitator’ in the ousting of Johnson.

“Of course, Steve Baker is gushing about the deal.

“He was a key agitator to remove Boris Johnson. We are 28 points behind in the polls since.

“What shred of credibility he has left would be destroyed if he came out against Sunak. He has nowhere else to go other than to grin and support,” she said.

Baker said Sunak had “pulled a blinder”, telling the BBC: “I think it’s a fantastic achievement for all parties to this deal – for Ireland, for the EU, for the unionists and for Eurosceptics. So, I’m delighted that we can move on to a new chapter.”

Mark Francois, the current chair of the ERG, wasn’t quite as ‘complimentary’ in his response to the deal. Francois warned of chaos if the prime minister tried to push through an unsatisfactory plan.

“Just putting in a couple of intermediate phases, with a situation where you still end up with the European court of justice, is effectively sophistry,” Francois told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme. “We’re not stupid. What we want is a situation where EU law is expunged from Northern Ireland, so it is treated on the same basis as England, Scotland and Wales.”

This would also not be acceptable to the DUP, he said, adding: “If the DUP don’t consent to the deal, then it’s simply not going to fly.”

And the possibility of the DUP not complying with Sunak’s deal is gaining momentum. This recent poll by Belfast Live shows that 67 percent of its readers believe the DUP will reject the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. Additionally, for the Stormont Brake to apply, power sharing at Stormont would need to be restored. And the DUP has said it will only lift its boycott on participating in power sharing, if it finds the new Brexit deal acceptable.

Purge of the Brexit ultras?

While a whiff of rebellion lurks, notably from the pro Boris Johnson camp, some political pundits have been shouting that the deal now gives Sunak the opportunity to purge the Brexit ultras. Martin Fletcher, a former foreign editor of the Times, says the prime minister should threaten to remove the whip from the Tories who vote against a deal on Northern Ireland. Writing for the New Statesman, Fletcher claims that the Northern Ireland agreement with Brussels marks the day when Sunak decided to confront Boris Johnson and when the Tories finally ‘began their long, long journey back towards the sensible, pragmatic centre of British politics and something vaguely approaching electability.’

Fletcher admits that he might be getting ahead of himself, and I can’t help but feel that there will be something in the small print that will send the Brexit ultras into meltdown. But then there does seem to be a general weariness about the whole European business and the damage it has done to the party. Time to move on seems to be the general feeling and belief that the deal promises to end bitter feuds that have divided the party since the days of Thatcher.

As for Boris, he hasn’t explicitly said he would vote against the new protocol, though he has – as expected – announced opposition of the deal. During a speech in London this month, the former PM said he would find it ‘very difficult’ to back the plan, arguing it would stifle the country economically. The negative comments by Johnson certainly puts Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal under pressure, as well as mounting pressure on the DUP, but its impact remains to be seen. 

Partygate conspiracy

Then there is the ridiculous Trumpian-style conspiracy-peddling which surfaced last week, that Partygate was a ‘left-wing stitch-up’ by a ‘socialist cabal of Boris haters who were delighted to remove him.’ Leading the conspiracy theorists is of course, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, with the backing of the right-wing media.

And none more so than the Daily Mail.

The newspaper was brutally mocked over its front page that claimed the Partygate probe was a ‘Labour plot.’ Opposition towards the Daily Mail’s front page on the great ‘Partygate conspiracy’ speaks volumes that the claims are unlikely to muster much support for the former prime minister, other than among the usual Johnson diehards. Hostility towards the conspiracy only confirms how much Boris Johnson is like Donald Trump – hugely popular with a minority of the faithful, but becoming a kiss of death for the wider electorate.

In this sense, the handful of Johnson loyalists might fight tooth and nail for his return and to purge the so-called moderates. But they’re unlikely to get very far, and you can always rely on Boris to do absolutely the wrong thing like nominate his father for a knighthood.

But then politics always throws up the unexpected, especially when Johnson is involved.

Right-Wing Media Watch – The right’s systemic threat to public interest journalism

If we political bloggers thought our jobs were safe, we might want to think again. That is, if the UK continues down a cynical path of attempting to suppress journalism. Even more so, if our government looks to America, where really draconian legislative measures to strangle journalism are in motion.

Last week, Florida state Senator Jason Brodeur introduced a bill that would require bloggers to register with the state government when they are paid to write about the governor and other political figures. In short, bloggers would have to file monthly reports listing each of their posts, as well as how much they were paid, and where the money came from. Failing to do this could result in bloggers being fined up to $2,500 for each missing report.

The introduction of such an authoritarian policy in Florida has been linked to a section of Hungarian law, which requires media organisations to register with the government. The law was introduced by Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán in 2010. As Mother Jones reports, this wouldn’t be the first time the American right have looked to Viktor Orbán’s government. Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay Law’, which bans discussion of sexual orientation in public schools, is said to be modelled in part by similar laws in Hungary. 

Orbán-inspired authoritarian laws might not have reached the UK yet, but it could be argued, they’re getting closer.

Enter the National Security Bill.

The National Security Bill was introduced by Priti Patel’s Home Office in May 2022 and is currently going through Westminster. It aims to completely overhaul ‘outdated’ espionage laws and create new measures to allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to deter, detect and disrupt threats to the UK. The bill has been widely condemned by news publishers and press freedom campaign groups that it threatens to ‘criminalise’ public interest journalism and whistleblowing.

A clause in the bill says that “providing” information that may “materially assist a foreign intelligence service” can be punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Campaign groups are concerned that the clause may threaten journalists for foreign state-funded broadcasters, including from “friendly states”, with prison sentences for reporting on leaked information.

The bill was passed through the House of Commons without a public interest defence being added, despite calls by journalists, media groups, and cross-party MPs for one to be included.

Telegraph Media Group deputy chairman Lord Black told peers that the bill could have a ‘chilling impact on investigative journalism’ due to the ‘heavy sentences involved’ for those violating the espionage terms.

Guardian News and Media, openDemocracy, Protect the whistle-blowers charity, the News Media Association (NMA), the Campaign for Freedom Information, and Article 19, all raised concerns with the government about the legislation.

Following the criticism, ministers were forced to make changes, albeit minor, to the controversial bill. In late February, the government published amendments to the draft legislation, that are intended to tighten its scope. The Home Office said that the amendments include measures to protect journalistic freedoms by clarifying the scope of offences.

However, the changes have been viewed with scepticism by media sources, who may still wish to lobby for a public interest defence for journalists.

Talking to the Guardian, one media insider said: “There’s a question whether these changes are sufficient to ensure protection for journalists are enough to prevent prosecution.”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) suggested the changes did not go far enough. General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “We believe further action is still necessary and that the best way of ensuring journalists can properly carry out their jobs and hold power to account is through a public interest defence.”

A report on openDemocracy entitled ‘When governments can decide what journalists say, we should all be worried,’ notes how the National Security Bill is the latest in a long line of cynical attempts to maintain secrecy and stifle journalism.

Remember the controversial ‘Clearing House’ policy, which vetted Freedom of Information requests from journalists? The government was accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ practice which instructed governmental departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and share personal information about journalists.

When openDemocracy reported on the Clearing House policy, the levelling up secretary Michael Gove smeared them. Fortunately, the ‘Clearing House’ was axed two years after openDemocracy revealed that the controversial practice was vetting Freedom of Information requests.

The Clearing House project may be closed now, but journalism is still under threat.

The National Security Bill, despite its minor changes, poses as a similar systemic threat to proper, investigative journalism. And with Britain’s right constantly glancing towards America’s right, forcing political bloggers to make monthly filing reports to the government or face harsh fines, could be closer than we think, in what would be a major blow to the public interest journalism of the likes of openDemocracy and Left Foot Forward, that hold the powerful to account.

Woke-bashing of the week – Daily Mail drags Brownies into culture war outrages

In its latest ridiculous woke-bashing ‘non’ story, the Mail claims that Brownies are being ‘dragged into a woke row, as God is removed from a camp song.’ In actual fact, it’s the Mail that is dragging the Brownies into the so-called ‘woke row,’ and the organisation is simply practising empathy and being mindful of inclusivity.

As they’ve practically exhausted every other part of Britain’s unique heritage with woke-bashing hype, it was only a matter of time before the much-loved Brownies were targeted.

According to the report, songs being sung by generations of Brownies and Girls Guides are being dropped or having their lyrics updated, in what is, apparently, the ‘latest example of wokery.’

Fortunately, not all Mail readers are convinced by the ‘woke’ connection. As one reader commented: “This is not about being woke, it’s about being inclusive. 80% of the kids attending wouldn’t be religious anyway. The majority of people in this country are not religious. It’s called the 21st century, you lot should try it.”

It was in 2013, when the Brownies and Girl Guides decided to drop religious references from the oath taken by members. It was one of the biggest changes the organisation had made in its then 103-year-old history and was taken as an attempt to show the movement welcomed “all girls, of all faiths and none.”

While the decision caused a stir at the time, namely among religious groups, members past and present were quick to remind that anyone feeling nostalgic for the old wording of the oath should remember the real joy of guiding is in meeting new friends and learning new skills.

It’s the same with the Cubs and Scouts. When my boys briefly trialled the Cubs, they did so to enjoy the outdoors and have fun with other children. Their Cubs’ leader was of the Muslim faith and the experience certainly had nothing to do with Christianity. Meanwhile, my husband tells me that when he joined the Cubs as a child, he did so to be on the football team, which was apparently a good one.

Why the Mail has decided to antagonistically disparage the organisation’s dropping of religious references now, testifies that it is merely part of the culture war-stoking narrative that is being deliberately intensified by the right-wing UK media.

As another reader wrote: “Has anyone actually been offended or complained?”

The only offence the article managed to muster was by The Christian Institute, whose spokesperson reminds that the Girl Guides and Scouts’ founders were ‘motivated by their faith.’ The spokesperson continued that ‘many Christian members of the Girl Guides will certainly question how welcome they really are.’

A quick skim of The Christian Institute website shows what type of organisation it is. The site is littered with culture stoking, anti-woke, anti-trans content. ‘Trans ideology has taken over my school,’ says 14-year-old,’ is one article. ‘Isle of Man halts sex ed lessons after ‘drag queen told kids there are 73 genders,’ is another. ‘Panorama hatchet job attacks pro-life pregnancy centre,’ is yet another. I’ll stop there.

The Mail’s Brownie-bashing article goes onto quote Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union. ‘No British institution, however revered, is safe from the “woke” thought police. It was only a matter of time before they came for the Girl Guides,’ said Young. No doubt the Mail didn’t find it difficult to persuade Toby Young to provide them with a quote, as the commentator and associator editor of the Spectator has himself written culture war stoking content for the newspaper. ‘Rishi Sunak has made a good start by appointing a ‘free speech tsar’… but we need an army to fight this war on woke,’ was a recent Mail article by Young.

No surprises in guessing who else is involved with the Free Speech Union? Our old friend Douglas Murray, the king of the ‘anti-woke liberals.’  Says it all really.

And at no point does the article reference a member of the Girl Guides organisation, or any parents, who have concerns or upsets on the issue, suggesting that such grievances only exist among the usual ‘woke-bashing’ suspects.

The article even proves as much, ending with a quote from a Girlguiding spokesperson, who provides clear and logical reasons for some of the changes the organisation may have made in recent years.

‘We are proud to be an inclusive organisation. Our ambition for diversity and inclusion is for Girlguiding to be a place where everyone is welcome and is free to be themselves, whoever they are and wherever they’re from.”

Sadly, the piece is just yet another example of the anti-woke right turning to secular culture war outrages to fire up their base.

Last month it was universities. Last week it was Roald Dahl books. This week it’s the Brownies and Girl Guides. What will it be next week, the Guide Dogs’ charity? Perhaps, they’ll insist trainers are teaching the dogs to be woke.

I wouldn’t put it past them. 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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