Boris Johnson might have taken over from Theresa May with a pledge to be a very different kind of prime minister, but there is one part of her legacy he has been unable to shake off – threats of rebellion from Tory MPs over Brexit.
Next week, Johnson faces a potentially tricky vote on an amendment to the government’s internal market bill, which paves the way for ministers to breach international law by unilaterally unravelling sections of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
More than 20 Brexit-backing Conservatives and former lawyers are also expected to rebel or abstain at a Commons vote on Monday night. Here are some of the main malcontents.
While a knighted Tory parliamentarian of 14 years standing – he is officially Sir Robert Neill – might seem an unlikely rebel, the Bromley and Chislehurst MP is a former Brexit sceptic and was among 14 Conservatives famously pictured on the Daily Telegraph front page in November 2017 as a “Brexit mutineer”.
Neill, a barrister who chairs the justice select committee, has been an outspoken critic of the government’s plan to potentially break international law and is the lead signatory of an amendment to the internal market bill, the legislative vehicle for the No 10 plan, which would seek to curtail it.
Not officially a rebel, in that he has been careful to only say so far that he cannot support the internal market bill as it stands – keeping open the possibility of abstention or a change of heart if the measure is tweaked – the theatrically voiced former attorney general is nonetheless an unwelcome addition to the list of dissenters for Johnson.
The Torridge and West Devon MP, a leading criminal and civil barrister, was attorney general under Johnson amid the key stages of Brexit, and also advised him that proroguing parliament last year was legal – which the supreme court disagreed with. His decision to speak out will confirm some suspicions that Cox was replaced as attorney general by Suella Braverman, a more junior lawyer, as she is seen as more malleable by No 10.
A former defence minister, who lost his government role when Johnson took over as PM, Ellwood now chairs the Commons defence committee and is a powerful backbench voice. He is also clear on Johnson’s proposal to break international law, calling it the “Nixonian Madman Theory” of negotiation.
The Bournemouth East MP is relatively low-profile as a politician but received public acclaim in 2017 when he tried to resuscitate Keith Palmer, the police constable fatally stabbed by a lone terrorist who attacked the Houses of Parliament.
Another leading backbencher who chairs a key committee, the Tonbridge and Malling MP heads the Commons foreign affair committee, where he has been an outspoken voice on areas including Hong Kong.
This role has also given his views more heft on the potential reputational damage of the government’s plans, with Tugendhat saying the economy in based, ultimately, “on the perception that people have of the UK’s adherence to the rule of law”.
The former PM is generally so loyal that she stayed silent when Johnson claimed a victory in signing a Brexit deal based on a concession – customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – that May had always rejected.
But even May has her limits. In June she broke cover to ask why David Frost was being made Johnson’s new national security adviser despite his lack of relevant experience. Then, last week, she used a Commons debate to argue that breaking international law could damage trust in the UK. It would be a surprise if May defied the whip. But she is not altogether happy.
The former chancellor has become something of a thorn in the prime minister’s side after dramatically quitting the cabinet earlier this year after objecting to restrictions which Downing Street wanted to place on his advisers.
He became the most high-profile former Johnson cabinet minister to criticise the internal market bill on Monday, saying he had studied the legislation and did not see why it was “necessary” to break international law.
Discontented peers are not uncommon but the former Tory leader’s intervention in a Lords debate last week was striking, given that he is a long-standing advocate and an unofficial high priest of Brexit opinion in the party.
Howard was also notably blunt, asking: “How can we reproach Russia, China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?”
On the other side of the ideological divide, less vocal so far but permanently watchful, are the Brexit ultras, represented by the European Reform Group, formerly chaired by the energetic and ever-media available Baker.
Baker insists Johnson promised him that the Brexit withdrawal agreement would be changed after it was signed. Rather than tweaking the deal, Baker wants the PM to “repudiate the whole treaty on the basis of the EU’s bad faith”. Baker and his allies would thus be furious if Johnson were seen to concede ground to Brussels.