“The Night of the Even Longer Knives”

September 4, 2019

by Martin Odoni


In 1846, a relatively young Member of Parliament destroyed his own party’s Government. The MP in question, Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jew ever to sit in the House of Commons, had been passed over for a Cabinet position by the then-Prime Minister, Robert Peel. Taking the slight rather more personally than he should have, Disraeli sought revenge, and used a debate over repealing the archaic protectionist Corn Laws to carry out a series of vitriolic verbal attacks on his leader.

While perhaps not entirely intending to have the effect, Disraeli ended up not only completely destroying Peel and forcing him to resign as Prime Minister, but also caused the Conservative Parliamentary Party to split. Peel bitterly resigned his membership of the Tories, and took most of his front bench MPs with him. This breakaway faction became known as ‘the Peelites’, and they formed an alliance with the Whig Party and Radical MPs (an alliance that would eventually solidify into the Liberal Party – forerunner of the Liberal Democrats).

The remnant of the Tory Party would subsequently prove unable to command a single-party majority in the House of Commons for nearly a quarter of a century.


In 1962, a Conservative Government, which after eleven years had clearly been in power too long for its own good, to say nothing of everyone else’s, effectively destroyed itself. The cause was that its Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, fell into a startling panic about a by-election defeat in Orpington. MacMillan, normally a very level-headed leader, responded to the loss by clearing out a third of his senior Cabinet – not just reshuffling his Ministers but disposing of seven, including Selwyn Lloyd – Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Fyfe Earl of Kilmuir – the Lord Chancellor, and Harold Watkinson – the Defence Minister. Nine junior ministers were also left hanging from the metaphorical gallows, and ultimately more than fifty individuals within Government found themselves either losing their job or carted off to somewhere else.

If MacMillan’s hope was to appear decisive, in command, and full of new ideas, he was to be sorely disappointed. He instead gave the public the impression of a blundering despot trying to shift blame for his own failures onto luckless subordinates. With the British economy under-performing, MacMillan’s unnecessary ruthlessness led to, perhaps somewhat tasteless, comparisons with the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany, when Adolf Hitler carried out a sinister purge of politicians in his own Party. Public animosity towards the Tory Government grew instead of ebbing, and the stresses of increasing financial difficulties and a hostile general climate took a toll on MacMillan’s health. He had to resign within a year, to be replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Douglas-Home’s grip on 10 Downing Street proved both limp and brief, as the Conservative Party lost the 1964 General Election barely a year after his appointment.


All of which brings us around to yesterday. The UK’s current Prime Minister – and probably already the worst – Boris Johnson, managed to lose a Commons vote at the very first time of asking. In the process, he became the first Prime Minister to suffer that indignity since the 19th Century. It was a pretty awful day all around for Johnson, with the pre-vote debate getting off to a dramatic start of exactly the worst kind for him. Just as he was beginning his address to the Commons, one of his MPs, Phillip Lee, pulled off the cheap-but-effective theatrical gesture of ‘crossing-the-floor‘ of the House, defecting to the Liberal Democrats in just about the most public and damaging manner possible. As the Tory/Democratic Unionist Party alliance that currently, just barely, props up the Government, had a majority of just one, that was basically the game up in itself.

Johnson then saw a very angry evening debate about whether the Commons should take control of the current Brexit process away from the Cabinet go badly for him. The vote at the end saw the Government defeated by twenty-seven. This put Johnson in a self-inflicted awful position. He had been openly blustering and threatening over the previous few days to withdraw the whip from any Tory rebels who voted against the Government. The rebels called Johnson’s bluff, and this led to a perhaps-unprecedented moment of British political history; –

Boris Johnson actually kept his word.

You read that right. Johnson said he would do something, and he genuinely went and did it. I put this development down to pure chance and would not recommend readers get used to it.

Johnson, in an act of unashamed bullying authoritarianism, expelled no fewer than twenty-one rebel MPs. This was a pretty huge response in any light, but the rebels included some of the real stalwarts, or at least what passes for stalwarts in the characterless and talentless modern House of Commons, in the Conservative Party. Look at some of the names on the list.

  • Phillip Hammond, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and thus second-most-powerful politician in the land, less than two months ago.
  • Kenneth Clarke, Father of the House and another former Chancellor, who has been an MP since 1970, and served in the Cabinets of every Tory Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher.
  • Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General.
  • Oliver Letwin, who served in the David Cameron Cabinet.
  • Justine Greening, former Education Secretary.
  • Rory Stewart, Tory leadership contender, and veteran of five Cabinet positions dating back to 2012.
  • Nicholas Soames, MP since 1983, and grandson of Winston Churchill.
  • David Gauke, an MP who served the last five years in various posts at the Treasury.

Among others. Whatever one might think of the actual ‘talents’ of most of these MPs, there is no doubt that they are some of the most prominent names in the current Conservative Parliamentary Party. So for them all to be sent to the block – particularly Hammond, Clarke and Grieve – is an astonishing development. The Night of the Even Longer Knives, almost.

To reiterate, Johnson has barely been in the job a month-and-a-half as yet. And most of that time, Parliament was on its summer recess. In about ten days of actual work-time, he has triggered the biggest constitutional crisis this country has faced since before the Second World War, and has now almost decimated the membership of his own Parliamentary party.

Another blundering despot? Well, at least MacMillan could argue that he waited until he had been in the job for five years before having his crazy moment. Johnson has waited not a great deal more than five weeks.

Now, there are two different ways of looking at these expulsions.

On the one hand, it could be argued that Johnson is showing impressive strength, making clear that he is the leader, and demonstrating, at a time when his Government is basically a ship without a mast in Parliament, that he is not afraid to let the troops know who is boss. He is making sure that there will be serious consequences for Tory MPs who will not behave, even if those consequences will, at least in the short term, change the maths in the Commons from merely very difficult to downright unworkable.

On the other hand, and it will surprise precisely no one to learn that this is the direction in which I am leaning, the expulsions could be interpreted as another example of a Tory leader doing the ‘Headless Chicken’ dance when events fail to go as he commands. A petulant act of spite by a childish schoolyard bully who realised that his threats were not as frightening as he had assumed, and so decided he would try and make an example of those who dared defy his will, in the hope that it would distract from his embarrassment and very obvious impotence.

I genuinely think that this was fool’s justice. The precedents pointed to above – the shedding of the Peelites in Disraeli’s day and MacMillan clumsily wielding an axe against dozens of his fellows – show that this sort of bludgeoning, sweeping response has more negative consequences than positive ones for a party. It is all very well to say that a short-term mathematical disadvantage is worthwhile for enforcing future discipline, but it is not that simple. For one thing, the rebels were warned in advance that Johnson would probably respond that way, and they still rebelled. The deterrent was already there, and it proved ineffective. There is therefore no reason to assume such a threat will be more effective next time. But also, it is now less likely that there will be a next time, as Johnson has reduced his number of MPs in one day from 311 to just 289; nearly forty short of the now-distant 326 required for a majority. He appears to have holed his own ship, so deeply that it looks doomed to sink, and history shows that when a Prime Minister’s ship sinks, he seldom gets a chance to captain another one; few Prime Ministers, certainly in modern times, leave office and get to return later. The last one who managed to do that was the embattled Harold Wilson, way back in 1974 (over a year before I was even born), and even then he only sneaked back in after losing the popular vote, and resigned after two years.

Fallen Prime Ministers, in short, are usually seen as ‘damaged goods’.

Worse, this act of crude authoritarianism is also drawing attention to obsolete aspects of the Conservative Party in England & Wales. There is no formal deselection process in the party, so expulsions are not necessarily handled independently of the top office. So the leader is given this expulsion power over colleagues by default. Many would argue that the power is excessive, and by wielding it just six weeks after taking up the reins of Government, Johnson has rather laid bare this democratic deficit in the way his party is run.

That deficit is magnified when one considers Johnson’s reasons for expelling the rebels. It was not a party issue, but a national issue being debated in the House of Commons. Johnson is not only a new leader of the Conservatives, he is also a new Prime Minister, and one with no recognisable mandate in the country at large. He was made Prime Minister after fewer than ninety three thousand people voted for him. In constitutional terms, he is no more than a glorified caretaker. And yet he is trying to throw his weight around in Parliament and force MPs to vote his way on matters of highly important national and constitutional significance? How, people are rightly wondering, can this be democratic? In light of Johnson’s cynical attempts to get around the British constitution via prorogation of Parliament, again on the endorsement of a mass of individuals less than one-sixth the size of the population of Cornwall, it was ‘terrible optics’ for him to behave in such an anti-democratic manner once more so soon.

No, these expulsions were not ‘reasonable force’. They were a short-tempered, unthinking rush of blood from a sociopathic, over-entitled buffoon who had to wait years to get the job he always wanted, and realised he is in great danger of losing it almost immediately. In his desperation to look ‘tough’ and to stave off other rebellions, he lashed out in the most high-handed manner he could, abusing powers no one person should ever be allowed to possess. And it has made his own demise even likelier, while exposing his party’s out-dated decision-making mechanisms.

This is not behaviour worthy of a Prime Minister. It is the behaviour of a Constitutional Monarch who has eyes on becoming an Absolute Monarch.

Nervous Tory PMs are dangerous

When a Tory PM is nervous, he/she gets destructive

2 Responses to ““The Night of the Even Longer Knives””

  1. hilary772013 Says:

    Reblogged this on hilary77blog and commented:
    This is a brilliant read

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