On a Tuesday morning in early February, the Conservative party was again at war with itself when Iain Duncan Smith typed out a WhatsApp message to his colleagues, urging them to hold their fire.
For two weeks, diehards in the pro- and anti-Europe factions of the UK’s governing party had been engaged in open hostilities as the Brexit negotiations approached a crunch point. Anna Soubry, the most ardent of the Tory Remainers, escalated the conflict when she claimed that 35 right-wing ideologues hell-bent on a hard Brexit were holding the party to ransom, and urged Theresa May to throw them out. Now journalists were calling asking Eurosceptics to respond.
“My suggestion is that colleagues should not engage on this,” Duncan Smith wrote in the main WhatsApp forum of the European Research Group (ERG), an influential network of Tory backbenchers lobbying for a clean break from the European Union. Other senior figures in the ERG agreed, according to exchanges shared with BuzzFeed News. Intensifying the “blue on blue” firefight would do nothing to advance their Brexit objectives. They would ignore Soubry’s “ranting”.
But if refusing to retaliate made tactical sense on this occasion, the WhatsApp exchange left little doubt that the Brexiteers were aggravated by the attack from their own benches. Replying to Duncan Smith, Anne Main, the MP for St Albans, said she had complained to the Tory whips about Soubry. “Can someone get a badge with 35 stars on it and a pair of swivle [sic] eyes and I shall wear it with pride,” Main wrote. “Patriots all.”
A few minutes later, she added: “Stay focused we march on to win.”
The WhatsApp chat is one of hundreds leaked to BuzzFeed News that emphasise the extraordinary mistrust and animosity the hard-line Brexiteers hold toward the Remain-supporting MPs in their own party.
The feeling is mutual, of course, as Soubry’s public remarks have shown. One Tory MP with access to the Remainers’ WhatsApp chats told BuzzFeed News they are also often vitriolic. But it’s the Brexiteers who dominate the party, and their messages that have now been exposed.
The tranche of chats provides a revealing insight into the internal dynamics of the UK’s governing party, a year and a half after the country voted to leave the EU. They show that the Eurosceptics see their Tory rivals as trying to block their vision of a prosperous, sovereign, free-trading Britain wholly freed from the meddling of Brussels. And that the divisions that have bedevilled the party for three decades are still as raw as ever, even if the conflict has gone temporarily quiet this week.
While tensions rose in the Brexit talks in the second half of last year, some of the ERG’s most active members used WhatsApp as a place to vent their exasperation and anger at Remain-supporting colleagues. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, the most influential Remainer in cabinet, was a frequent target — “Philly no mates,” in the words of one MP — as were the 20 or so backbenchers trying to soften May’s approach to Brexit in parliament.
Those MPs might also wear blue rosettes but, according to these messages, they’re going against the will of the British people, putting Brexit at risk, and allowing Jeremy Corbyn closer to power.
They’re “condescending arseholes”, in the words of one Leaver.
“The enemy”, in the words of another.
“We have to show them up and shout them down,” said Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire.
Downing Street and the Tory whips have bent over backwards in recent weeks to mollify hard-liners on both sides of Brexit, culminating in Theresa May’s conciliatory speech at the Mansion House in London on Friday, which appears to have brought about a ceasefire for now. But the extent of the antagonism in these conversations emphasises how difficult it will be for May to hold the fragile truce through the Brexit negotiations, let alone to achieve reconciliation once Britain has left the EU. Some senior Tories believe the rift is irreparable.
The leaks were made possible by one of the most surprising developments in British politics in recent years: the enthusiastic adoption by MPs of WhatsApp as a communications tool. While government ministers complain about the consequences of the encrypted app’s popularity for national security and law enforcement, it has become immensely popular across Westminster. So quickly did it become a central feature of political organising that some users appear to have given little thought to the pitfalls of conducting parliamentary business on a messaging app.
Led since January by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ERG adopted WhatsApp after the 2016 referendum as a tool for supporting its parliamentary and media campaigning — to share research and articles, disseminate “lines to take” for media interviews, and arrange meetings. The group chat’s membership swelled to around 100 MPs, which allowed the ERG’s leaders to communicate with a large chunk of the Conservative party quickly and cheaply. But it meant that intimate conversations that were once held in private offices and parliament’s tea rooms, free from scrutiny, were now put down in writing in view of dozens of MPs and, potentially, their staff.
The ERG has done more than any group outside cabinet to shape the UK’s approach to withdrawing from the EU, exerting more influence over 10 Downing Street than the Tory Remainers, the leading business lobbyists, and the official opposition. With around 70 supporters on the back benches and at least a dozen more in ministerial roles or the whips’ office, it has the numbers to dictate terms to the prime minister — and potentially to bring down her government if they decide she is no longer committed to their vision of Brexit.
BuzzFeed News contacted several of the ERG’s leaders inviting them to comment on this story, but they did not respond.
Despite being the dominant force in the Conservative party, the leaked WhatsApp conversations reveal that some ERG members have grown increasingly anxious as the Brexit negotiations progressed since last summer.
The ERG’s most active members are zealous and determined, the messages show; they may not be the burn-it-all-to-the-ground extremists portrayed by Soubry, but they’re convinced of the righteousness of their cause and willing to take on anyone who isn’t committed to their post-Brexit vision — including journalists, mainstream economists, civil servants, central bankers, and politicians wearing the same party colours.
But the years spent in the political wilderness, when they were scorned as noisy obsessives pursuing a marginal cause, left a mark. And so they’re jumpy about the possibility of Brexit not turning out how they want it to.
At several points in the last eight months, the chats show, Eurosceptics have expressed alarm at concessions in the Brexit negotiations, worrying that it will be interpreted by voters as a betrayal of the referendum. One striking example came in September, when May gave a keynote speech in Florence.
Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, in West Yorkshire, warned colleagues that their constituents would punish them if EU citizens continued to move freely to the UK during a transitional phase after Brexit. He even appeared to compare the concession to Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“We will be wiped out in the local elections next May,” Davies wrote. “We have rewarded the EU for their intransigence. It is pathetic to be frank — a modern day [Neville] Chamberlain.”
Asked about this and other comments by BuzzFeed News on Thursday, Davies said: “These are old comments born out of snapshots of frustration. The parliamentary party has moved on a long way since then.”
Another example of the Eurosceptics’ unease came in late November, when it was revealed the UK would pay about £40 billion to settle its accounts after leaving the EU. Many Brexiteers had adamantly opposed an exit payment and now fretted that voters will punish the party at the ballot box if the UK is still paying large sums to the EU years after leaving. “We might as well have remained,” said Maria Caulfield, the MP for Lewes, who was promoted to be the Tories’ vice-chair for women in January. “Complete sell out.” According to another MP, backbenchers felt they were being “steamrollered” by those leading the negotiations.
In December, when May secured a last-minute agreement that moved the withdrawal process to the next phase, senior ERG figures including Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin told colleagues the deal wasn’t perfect, but they could live with it. Other members of the bloc were far from persuaded. Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, said it was a “sell out”. Marcus Fysh, the representative for Yeovil, proclaimed after reading through the detail that it was “very much worse than anticipated”.
A constant theme running through the backbenchers’ WhatsApp chats since last summer is anxiety about the Conservatives’ weak political position, and Labour’s resurgence. Members despaired that the relentless infighting, leadership speculation, and manoeuvring by the Remainers would lose the Tories the next election — and undermine their hallowed Brexit.
“I’m starting to worry we will not get Brexit delivered with all the infighting at the top and talk of leadership challenges,” Caulfield said in July. “Real disaster for all of us if we go back to the country having stuffed this up.”
In October, as infighting raged after a terrible party conference, the former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers said: “Am I the only one who finds it depressing to wake up to Sunday papers full of attacks by Conservatives on other Conservatives? This is so damaging to our chances of saving this country from Labour.”
The mood worsened while the negotiations progressed, and some Brexiteers couldn’t resist venting their frustrations at their own party colleagues.
Philip Hammond was their primary target on the front bench. Heated WhatsApp exchanges accused the chancellor of undermining the negotiations and trying to keep Britain so closely tethered to the union that it would hardly be worth leaving. In the Brexiteers’ eyes, Hammond just doesn’t fundamentally believe that Britain can thrive outside the union, so he should be replaced.
“Hammond has to go,” Dorries wrote in October. “We need a can do man or woman as chancellor. Someone who walks into No 11 singing!”
“It’s just the gloomy way he tells ’em,” said Michael Fabricant.
In January, when Hammond told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the UK would only “very modestly” diverge from the EU after Brexit, the ERG were again furious. “Philly no mates strikes again!” Bridgen wrote.
Senior figures in the ERG such as Rees-Mogg, Jenkin, and Duncan Smith put pressure on Hammond in interviews, though they were careful to avoid calling directly for him to be sacked. In the ERG WhatsApp channel, others weren’t so restrained. “I think we should insist on Hammond’s resignation,” said Fysh. “It is absurd he is still in post. He has done nothing to prepare the country for a decent negotiation or the range of possible outcomes and I don’t think he will.”
“I told my whip last night that either HAMMOND goes or I will no longer be able to guarantee my support for the PM,” Bridgen added. Both of their comments were leaked to the Sunday Times.
Bridgen told BuzzFeed News on Thursday: “I have no intention of commenting on historic private WhatsApp conversations.”
The most intense anger, the chats reveal, has been directed at the Remain-supporting backbenchers who’ve been lobbying to soften May’s Brexit policies — the likes of Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen. It became especially fierce when parliament began debating the detail of the EU withdrawal bill, the legislation underpinning Britain’s departure.
In mid-November, the Daily Telegraph, a strongly pro-Brexit newspaper, called 15 Remain-supporting Tory backbenchers “mutineers” on its front page, because they were preparing to challenge the withdrawal bill. It immediately triggered a backlash on social media and several moderate Tories rallied to defend the Remainers. Trying to de-escalate the conflict the next morning, Suella Fernandes, the chair of the ERG at the time (she was promoted to be a Brexit minister in January), messaged her Eurosceptic colleagues asking them to be calm and constructive.
“No one can think the Telegraph’s front page this morning did us and Brexit any good,” Fernandes said at 9:20am on 15 November. “We will all still be colleagues once this is over. And we will need to pull together. The prospect of both losing Brexit, and gaining Corbyn, are too dreadful to contemplate.”
But the Brexiteers’ fury at their colleagues was entrenched.
“It would appear they are rather enjoying it,” Dorries said of the rebels. Anne Main said she and others in the Commons had been faced by a “harpy chorus” of Remainers shouting at them from their own benches. (Dorries added, weeks later, that unnamed MPs had “tried to bully [Main] out of the chamber”, but she “fought back by continually sitting next to them, until they moved”.)
Tension between the factions grew even worse in mid-December when a handful of Tory Remainers opposed the government to force through an amendment giving parliament a say on the final Brexit deal, inflicting on May her first defeat in a Brexit vote.
Moments after that vote went through on the night of 13 December, Dorries sent a WhatsApp message to the ERG: “That defeat has put a spring in Labours step. Given them a new lease of life, a taste of what winning feels like and a weekend of joy ahead whilst the media focus on the PM, the vote and write about party splits and weaknesses. It may not make much difference to Brexit, but it will to our standing in the eyes of the electorate.”
Dorries and other ERG supporters couldn’t help but express their anger publicly. “They should be deselected and never allowed to stand as a Tory MP ever again,” she tweeted. Fabricant tweeted that the Remainers “should be ashamed of themselves”. Andrea Jenkyns tweeted that she was “disgusted”.
In the ERG’s WhatsApp group, some Brexiteers warned that the amendment would lead to Britain staying in the EU’s single market, something they've adamantly opposed.
“Being nice to them is very definitely a strategy that is not working,” Dorries told her colleagues.
“I hope none of the rebel’s [sic] are still on this whatsapp!” said Pauline Latham.
Main added that a group of unhappy lawyers with “oh so clever brains” are “hoping to drag things down into a legal morass until we have a change of gov and then we can all go back to cosy EU status quo.”
Philip Davies said the government had been backed into a corner “because the rebels are all condescending arseholes”.
“I hope with this the days of 11 Tories dictating to over 300 colleagues will now have a line drawn under it,” Davies added. “Some of our patience is wearing very thin with people who voted for a referendum and are now seeking to frustrate the result because they didn’t get the result they wanted or expected.”
Paul Scully, the MP for Sutton and Cheam, who is now overseeing the Conservatives’ campaigning in London, urged the ERG not to overreact. “Just don’t box them in,” Scully said. The Telegraph’s “mutineers” front page had backfired on the Brexiteers because it emboldened their rivals. “Putting the heat on is one thing but circling your enemy with no exit means there’s nothing to lose,” Scully said.
May’s speech at the Mansion House last week temporarily cooled the enmity between the Tory factions.
For now, the prime minister’s appeal to her party’s warring MPs to compromise has been cautiously accepted by senior figures on both sides, buying her time and pushing the Tory infighting out of the headlines. According to well-placed Conservative sources, the Leavers have been persuaded that challenging May now won’t change the fact that there isn’t a parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit, but it would begin a chain of events that results in Corbyn becoming prime minister.
But party insiders don’t expect the truce to last long. The divisions are so deep. The stakes are so high. Several critical Brexit decisions have to be made in the next few months — transition, Northern Ireland, customs, the “end state” — that will inevitably provoke another ferocious conflict between the Tories’ rival factions. The civil war is far from over.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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