How much bother will the Gaukeward squad cause Boris Johnson? Barring one of the biggest political upsets of the past three years, Boris Johnson will be announced on Tuesday as the new leader of the Conservative party – and the next prime minister. Talk has already turned to the problems (and defections) he could encounter in his own party in his first days in office.
Philip Hammond set the tone on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday when he took some pleasure in explaining he couldn’t be sacked by Johnson as Chancellor. The reason? He would resign first. It’s a common refrain amongst the anti-no deal Cabinet ministers. David Gauke – the Justice Secretary – has suggested he will do the same. Given that Johnson is unlikely to keep either in his Cabinet anyway, this is in part about pride – jumping before you are pushed. They are part of a group that has already been dubbed the ‘Gaukeward squad’ by Tory MPs. Their joint aim is to stop the UK from leaving the EU without a deal.
It points at a changing of the guard that is expected when Johnson enters No. 10 – accompanied by a staff heavily made up of former Vote Leave colleagues. Under Johnson, the European Research Group should in theory go from being a thorn in Theresa May’s side to some of Prime Minister Johnson’s most loyal supporters. It will then fall on May’s loyal soldiers – Gauke, Hammond – and their anti no-deal colleagues to take on the role of serial rebels in the Commons.
Those involved say there are around 30 Tory MPs who share this group’s common aim: to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Where they diverge is that some are specifically against proroguing Parliament to bring about no deal whereas others are opposed to no deal in any form. A small handful – which may or may not include the Chancellor – would go so far as to vote down the government to stop it, but this is only a handful. When it comes to those Tory MPs who are in favour of a second referendum, there are rumours that some could defect to the Liberal Democrats as early as this week – thereby depriving Boris Johnson of a majority before he even has a chance to begin his premiership. However, Lib Dem sources are keen to play down expectations on the speed of movement. Some in the Johnson camp think that such threats add weight to the argument that Johnson needs to keep some figures from the other wings of his party in his Cabinet in order to show that it can be a big tent project.
Where the bulk of the Gaukeward squad will likely cause the greatest difficulty to a Johnson government is in the areas they can team up with an ‘activist speaker’ in John Bercow and find ways to try and stop no deal. Both confidence votes and attempts to cut off supply are seen as a step too far by the majority of the group. However, as was shown with Dominic Grieve’s proroguing amendment on the NI bill last week, there is a majority against no deal if it can be stopped or made more difficult through less drastic mechanisms.
It’s also worth pointing out that the bulk of the Gaukeward squad have voted for the Withdrawal Agreement several times – and they have said on record that they want to leave the EU with a deal. It follows that were Johnson to win some form of concession from Brussels and be able to present a new deal for leaving the EU, his Gaukeward bother could simply go away.