Among them are two former chancellors of the exchequer, an array of former cabinet ministers, and many old and familiar stalwarts of Conservative party conferences and Conservative think tanks. One of them, Nicholas Soames, is Winston Churchill’s grandson. Another, Kenneth Clarke, is the longest-serving member of the House of Commons. All of them were told that if they voted against the Conservative government Tuesday night — paving the way for the British Parliament to block a damaging, “no-deal” Brexit — they would be expelled from the Conservative party.
Not only that, but they also would be prevented from standing as parliamentary candidates at the next election. They would be out of politics. Finished. Yet all of them, all 21 of them, did it anyway. Why?
Firstly, they did it because — of course — it’s an idiotic idea for Britain to sever, from one day to the next, all of its relationships with all of its closest and most important neighbors: not just trade but also security arrangements, scientific agreements, legal pacts, diplomatic deals, everything. During the Brexit referendum campaign, nobody ever said this kind of total break was a possibility, nobody voted for it and only a minority of the public say they support it now. The 21 Tory rebels know that the diplomatic and economic consequences of a break like this, without transitional treaties and negotiated arrangements, will last for decades. Just about everybody else knows this, too, including the prime minister, Boris Johnson. But only 21 members of the party were willing to act.
Secondly, they did it because a few days earlier, Johnson had announced a suspension of Parliament that will begin next week. This unprecedented abuse of power was accompanied by a series of open lies, bullying language and threats of a kind that Conservative governments don’t, historically, use toward their members. The 21 Tory rebels aren’t just standing against an ugly legal and economic mess; they also are standing up in favor of constitutional, behavioral and legal norms that they see being broken. They are standing up for a set of parliamentary traditions and customs that they fear will be destroyed forever.
Thirdly, they did it because they know — everybody knows — that members of the current Tory leadership have chosen this destructive path not for the sake of the country, not for the well-being of the British, not for the future of their children, but because they are afraid that, having promised Brexit and failed to deliver, they will lose the next election. They are putting party over country. By contrast, the 21 Tory rebels have decided to put country over party, indeed country over career, in defiance of their leaders.
These 21 rebels, in other words, stood up against a national leader from their own party in order to prevent him from harming the country, undermining the constitution and damaging democracy. Imagine how different American politics would be if we could find 21 Republican senators to do the same.