Where Are America’s ‘Rebel Tories’?

Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them?
Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them? (Jessica Taylor via U.K. Parliament via Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After the riveting debate in Parliament yesterday about the terms and timing for Brexit, 21 Tory “rebel” MPs defected from the Conservative party on a major vote. They joined members of other parties in dealing a crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s plans and probably his governing prospects.

After the vote, I opined on Twitter that the 21 Tories, who included several revered party elders, set an example in political courage for U.S. politicians. The 21 knew very well that they would pay a price. Johnson’s party-leadership team made clear before the vote that it would “remove the whip” from MPs who defied them, which meant that dissidents would be kicked out of the party, and in the next election they would be “delisted” as candidates to retain their seats. For most, this would seriously dampen their political prospects.

By contrast, American politicians can seem paralyzed by the mere threat of being “primaried,” or of losing a funding source, or of becoming the object of Donald Trump’s angry tweets. Therefore I wondered, in my short item, why can’t we be more like the Brits? More specifically, why can’t members of our governing party, the 53 Republicans who control the Senate, stand up to their party’s leader the way these Tories stood up to Boris Johnson?

A reader in the U.S. writes in to say, Wait a minute. Here is his case:

While I admire the courage of the 21 Tory Members of Parliament who
voted against Boris Johnson’s government, and I wish that Republican
Members of Congress, would stand up to President Trump, I don’t think the comparison is necessarily a good one.

The actions of Boris Johnson’s government have forced a clear and
immediate choice on the Tory Members in a way that we haven’t seen in the US under the Trump administration.

Since the referendum in the UK, Parliament has been unable to move one way or the other on Brexit. This isn’t so different from what is
happening in our Congress.

Boris Johnson’s latest move forces a decision with immediate
consequences: (1) a no-deal Brexit could have a severe impact on the
lives of the majority of the people in Britain, including supporters
of the Tory party and (2) prorogation of Parliament at this critical
time is a direct threat to the power of the legislature in British
politics. We can’t read the minds of the rebel Torys, but avoiding
being tied to a no-deal Brexit and being a member of a Parliament with
diminished powers could be seen as self interest.

As much as I am horrified by almost everything the Trump
administration is doing, nothing yet has come close to this in
bringing an immediate and visible threat to a significant majority of
Americans (or Republicans) and directly challenging the power of

Many things Trump has done will have severe consequences, but it seems that much of this is still invisible to most Americans. If
Trump’s administration has been talented at anything, perhaps it’s
been in avoiding anything with the immediate and widespread impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Republican legislators have not faced anything like prorogation or a
no-deal Brexit. I have no confidence that they would show similar
courage, but we can’t say for sure.

Perhaps the closest thing to prorogation of Parliament that happened
is the refusal to vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination. That wasn’t
Trump, and unfortunately, John Bercow wasn’t there to help us.

John Bercow is, of course, the gloriously histrionic speaker of the House of Commons, a role that—especially as played by him—has vastly more minute-by-minute influence over the conduct of parliamentary debates than its U.S. legislative counterparts. If you haven’t seen Bercow in action, you will quickly get an idea with this YouTube sample from yesterday’s proceedings, when Boris Johnson’s allies challenged Bercow’s judgment on an important ruling.

As for the reader’s comment that changes of the Trump era remain “invisible,” clearly he is not minimizing what they have meant. Detention camps along the border; farmers and manufacturers coping with tariffs; wilderness land opened for drilling; a president touting his own resort as a site for the next G7 conference—a lot of what has happened is all too grossly visible.

Instead, I think the reader’s point worth noting is that, for a variety of reasons, many people in the U.S. have managed to overlook or excuse away the daily toll. (To give just one example, the former “deficit hawk” Republicans, such as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have gone mute as the tax-cut-driven deficit soars.) By contrast, politicians in Britain believed they faced a right-now, up-or-down, do-or-die choice about the nation’s future, which called for people to line up and be counted that day.

The U.S., too, will face such a choice, no later than November 3, 2020.