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Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
I still do a double take whenever I remember that David Gauke is no longer in the Conservative Party. If you read his fortnightly column on ConHome, you’ll know that the former Justice Secretary is a Tory to his backbone.
I don’t just mean in the sense of being suspicious of big government, a supporter of open competition and so on. I mean that he has, for want of a better phrase, a conservative temperament. He is pragmatic, ironic, self-aware; clever but sceptical of intellectuals; a handy cricketer and a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter; an authentic champion of the quietly patriotic suburban communities he used to represent.
True, Gauke has a low opinion of the PM, and that prejudice sometimes leads him to put a needlessly negative construction on whatever the Government is doing. But what makes his column so readable is the tension between his dislike of our present leadership and his essential fair-mindedness.
I suppose I should declare an interest. Gauke and I were Conservative students together and, after we graduated, we both worked for Eurosceptic MPs – I for Michael Spicer, he for Barry Legg. We were later involved together in the European Research Group. Indeed, the Gawkster became our treasurer, a position to which he brought the same flinty fiscal conservatism that was to characterise his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I consider him a friend – though I should add that he has no idea I am writing this column. (Had I mentioned it, he’d have modestly told me not to bother and perhaps secretly hoped that I’d ignore him. He is, as I say, very English.)
That Gauke should now be outside the Conservative Party is a reminder that the fevered and phantasmagorical events of 2018 and 2019 really happened. Already, it takes an effort of will to recall those days: the court challenges; the pretence that a referendum that everyone had promised to respect was meaningless; the horrible sight of a Commons Speaker bending the rules with partisan intent; the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations; the Supreme Court’s glib dismissal of the 1689 Bill of Rights; the spectacle of a government being kept in office by MPs who would not let carry through its business but would not agree to fresh elections either; and, in the end, what looked like a breakdown of the party system.
A number of Labour and Conservative MPs left their parties, to the delirious excitement of the broadcast media. But it turned out that years of soft questioning on Newsnight and the Today Programme did not translate into electoral support. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve – all sank without trace.
Europhile MPs repeatedly sought to disable Brexit by ensuring that the pro-EU Commons majority would get to decide whether or not to accept the deal. The effect of their antics was to destroy the Government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain got the worst possible terms. The punitive Northern Ireland Protocol was perhaps their supreme achievement.
In September 2019, 21 Conservative MPs lost the Whip after voting to switch control of the legislative process from the Government to the Commons. They had varying motives. Some were die-in-the-ditch Remainers; some didn’t like Boris Johnson; some (Anne Milton in Guildford, Steve Brine in Winchester) had peculiarly Europhile constituencies; some simply fell in with the wrong crowd.
When the election was called three months later, they scattered in all directions. Ten of the 21 had the Whip restored, of whom six stood down and four (Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes) won their seats again as Conservatives. Of the 11 who remained outside the fold, six retired, two (Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach) stood unsuccessfully as Lib Dems and three (Milton, Dominic Grieve and Gauke himself) stood unsuccessfully as independents.
Johnson is temperamentally unable to bear grudges, and cheerfully put four of the 21 – Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and Richard Benyon – into the House of Lords. Indeed, I’m happy to say that Benyon, one of the most accomplished countrymen at Westminster, is back on the front bench as a DEFRA minister.
But not Gauke. If we can liken the événements of 2019 to a tectonic upheaval – and I think we can – then the Gawkster is a volcanic rock that has been hurled miles away by the blast. There he sits, a geological anomaly, reminding us that violent forces once altered the landscape.
At least, I hope he is an anomaly. Gawkie himself likes to write about the big-government turn that the Conservatives had taken even before the epidemic struck. A general realignment, he thinks, has left the party speaking to and for relatively protectionist, interventionist and dirigiste communities.
Such a party, runs the subtext, has less space for people like him: fiscal conservatives who are mildly Europhile. (I say “mildly” because Gauke never voted to block Brexit. He quit the party because he was convinced – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that the PM was planning to leave the EU without any trade deal.)
Such liberal-minded MPs dominated the pre-2015 party. We hear a lot less from them these days. Perhaps they have changed their minds. Perhaps they are keeping quiet, sensing that public opinion is going through an authoritarian spasm. Perhaps there has simply been a turnover in personnel.
Whatever the explanation, we need to remember that our party contains multitudes. We have had space, down the centuries, for protectionists and free-traders, for interventionists and privatisers, for Heathites and Thatcherites, for Europhiles and Eurosceptics (though this last division is, I hope, now as redundant as the arguments over Catholic emancipation or Rhodesian independence).
We are slipping in Gauke’s former constituency – and, indeed, across my old Home Counties patch. Yet our former voters – self-reliant, affluent, sceptical of state capacity and with little time for populism – are an indispensable part of our coalition. We need, not just their faute-de-mieux support, but their active enthusiasm. Finding a way to recork the Gauke might be a good start.