John Major, former Conservative prime minister, has thrown his backing behind Tory rebel candidates at next week’s election in a dramatic sign of party grandees rejecting Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Sir John urged voters to support three pro-European former ministers — Dominic Grieve, David Gauke and Anne Milton — who are running as Independents against Tory candidates on December 12.
The former premier said they were “principled, decent human beings”, adding: “Let me make one thing absolutely clear: none of them has left the Conservative party. The Conservative party has left them. Without such talent on its benches, parliament will be the poorer.”
Sir John’s former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, has also backed the three Independents and has said that people should vote for the Liberal Democrats in other seats to try to halt Brexit.
Meanwhile Chris Patten, former Tory chairman and chancellor of Oxford university, warned that under Mr Johnson’s leadership the Conservatives were turning into “a narrow-based rightwing English nationalist party”.
Mr Johnson’s team argued that the Tory heavyweights, who held high office in the 1990s and are part of a generation who fought to defend Britain’s membership of the EU, were out of touch with the modern party and the wider electorate.
The prime minister, speaking on a campaigning visit to Kent, said it was “sad” that Sir John had urged people to vote against Tory candidates in the seats of Mr Grieve (Beaconsfield), Mr Gauke (South West Hertfordshire) and Ms Milton (Guildford).
“I think he’s wrong,” Mr Johnson said. “He represents a view which is outdated, alas. We need to honour the people and get Brexit done.”
Sir John shared a platform with former Labour leader Tony Blair in London on Friday night to speak out against Brexit and in an effort to reduce the size of an expected Conservative majority in the election.
Sir John described Brexit as the “worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime” and said that leaving the EU will affect “nearly every single aspect of our lives for many decades to come”.
“It will make our country poorer and weaker. It will hurt most those who have least. Never have the stakes been higher, especially for the young. Brexit may even break up our historic United Kingdom,” he said.
Mr Blair said: “A no-deal Brexit is a risk no responsible government would take. Such a Conservative party does not deserve to govern unchecked and the country would not be wise to let them.”
Lord Patten said that the trio of Tory rebels, ejected from the Conservative parliamentary party after voting to thwart a no-deal Brexit, had been “squeezed out of the Conservative parliamentary party in a way unprecedented in my political lifetime”.
In separate statements endorsing each candidate, Lord Patten added that they represented “what the Conservative party has stood for during decades of success: a moderate, decent, socially inclusive and internationalist political movement”.