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A Welsh Tory MP standing down over his party’s embrace of ‘English nationalism’ should set off alarm bells. It won’t

Guto Bebb is right to say the Conservatives have become the party of ‘appealing to extremes’. His party should listen hard

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 15 July 2019 17:50 BST
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Boris Johnson gets grilled on Gatt 24 by Andrew Neil

Another day, another dead canary, yet on we go, ever deeper into the Boris Johnson coal mine. Can’t turn back now.

It’s Guto Bebb this time, a Welsh Tory MP who’s said he’ll stand down at the next election, rather than carrying on serving a party, and a party leader, that has decided it wants to “appeal to the extremes".

“What’s not possible for someone like me is to believe in the type of English nationalism that we are now seeing within the Conservative party,” Bebb said in an interview at the weekend.

These are the kind of events, the kind of words that, in even vaguely sane times, would set alarm bells ringing. But they will make no difference. We are scarcely a week away from, barring something of a miracle, Johnson becoming prime minister. It is now abundantly clear that a week will not be long enough for him to find a solution to the vast intractable national mess almost entirely of his own making.

Bebb’s words make him one of many Tory MPs who will have nothing to do with a Johnson premiership. Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Nick Boles have all resigned the Conservative whip. Theresa May’s Brexit deal failed because she did not have enough MPs in her own party to support it. It broke her government.

Johnson has close to zero prospects of securing a better, or even just different deal, and he will have even fewer MPs on his side to get it through the House of Commons. There is no route through the mess. Not without a general election, and even that offers very little by way of an actual solution.

Brexit has radicalised Conservatives. A recent poll showed that more than 50 per cent of them, and this is actual members, not merely voters, do not care if Brexit destroys their party, as long as it happens. These are the people the party has decided only Johnson can bring back into the fold. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Conservative Party would have been enough for the kind of people standing outside the High Court, chanting the name of Tommy Robinson.

Now, thanks to the great radicalising event of the last 60 years, namely the EU referendum, these people have departed for more radical alternatives. Johnson, with his jokes about Muslim women looking like letterboxes, is, as far as Tories are concerned, the people’s Islamophobe, the Etonian Yaxley-Lennon. Only he can go and get these voters back. The inevitable, and genuinely frightening consequences of his attempt to do so, of a mainstream party rushing out to meet the radical English right, is a problem that can be left for another day.

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In the meantime, all Johnson can do is seek to hold back the tides of truth with his usual barrage of lies. But the tides are coming. He will be prime minister in barely more than a week. And there will be precious few weeks, perhaps days, before he will be hopelessly found out.

There will, for example, be no paragraph 5b of Article 24 of Gatt, there will be no “standstill agreement” for frictionless trade with the European Union. There will be no technological solutions to the Irish border question that will allow for the withdrawal agreement to be reopened and the backstop removed. Anyone who tries to tell him so, as Andrew Neil did on Friday night, is merely told they are being “defeatist” that they need to “show optimism, show that we can get this done.”

There is no time to prepare, in any meaningful way, for a no-deal outcome in just three and a half months time. The European Union knows that. So do the British civil service.

It is all radioactive lies, all of it, and its half life is vanishingly short. It is almost certainly too late for the Conservative Party to change its mind, to not become the party of English nationalism, to not choose to humiliate itself so profoundly on the world stage. It doesn’t want to anyway.

But when the inevitable happens, it will be important to remember that it cannot say it wasn’t warned. There were dead canaries everywhere.

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