Everyone knows the story of how a small number of Conservatives will cast a vote that decides something of great and lasting importance. But the group of Tories is much smaller than you think, and they vote much sooner than you imagine: on Friday, in fact.
I am not referring to the 160,000 members of the national Conservative party. I am talking about the 600 who belong to the South West Hertfordshire Conservative Association.
On Friday 28th June, those members will be invited to a special meeting to vote on a motion of no confidence in the Conservative MP for South West Herts, David Gauke. According to the motion, Gauke has ‘wilfully obstructed’ the implementation of the 2016 referendum result. It does not specify how Gauke, the Justice Secretary, has done this.
It is, to put it mildly, a striking interpretation of an MP’s record. Gauke, as a minister in Theresa May’s government, supported her Withdrawal Agreement and voted for it three times. Just in case it needs saying, if a majority of MPs had voted for that deal, voted the same way that Gauke did, the UK’s membership of the European Union would have ended on 29th March this year.
At the last time of asking in March, 276 Conservative MPs joined Gauke in voting for the deal, among them one Boris Johnson.
Gauke’s alleged obstruction of Brexit seems to rest on comments he has made setting out his view that leaving the EU without an exit agreement in place between the UK and the EU would be a very bad idea and deeply harmful to the UK economy.
For an awful lot of people, that view is not controversial. It is a view shared by most of British industry, the Bank of England, the Treasury and the overwhelming majority of academics, officials, economists, and experts of other sorts. (And, for the sake of disclosure, me too, but I’m not claiming that running a think-tank makes me an expert.)
But, of course, it must be said that some people disagree with that view and there is nothing dishonourable in that: the consensus view can be wrong and should always be tested. The point is not that Gauke is right or wrong about no deal, or that his Tory critics are right or wrong about it.
The point is whether the Conservative party remains a big and mature enough organisation to contain such disagreements. And to be clear, there are people actively working to ensure that is it does not do so, that a national party becomes something much smaller and meaner. Before they vote, members of Gauke’s association might want to think about those people, about what they want the Tories to become, and why.
This story from the Express last month, is well worth reading. It quotes Arron Banks, sidekick and funder of Nigel Farage. In it, Banks does two things. First, he bragged about encouraging hardline Brexiteers to join the Conservative party in order to undermine MPs: one of whom is David Gauke.
Second, Banks urged fellow travellers to campaign in the Peterborough by-election – for the Brexit Party:
‘We’re encouraging Leave.EU supporters to make their way over this weekend and offer their support.
We need to send a message to Westminster that the Brexit party can break through and take parliamentary seats.’
Things don’t come much plainer than that in politics. Banks is not just attempting to be a malign force within the Conservative party, he is doing so because he is an active supporter of another party. And it’s not just David Gauke he’s targeting. Leaked documents seen by the Sunday Times suggest he is on the verge of orchestrating an attempt to remove Sam Gymiah. It seems fair to suggest that Banks would use a no-confidence vote against Gauke to encourage further such efforts.
Some people have compared the attempts by a small band of destructive zealots to capture the Conservative party to the recent takeover of Labour by the hard Left.
In fact, there is at least one important difference. At least Labour still has rules that mean Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle have had to renounce their membership of the Communist party of Great Britain before gaining positions of influence in Labour. The Conservatives are increasingly content to take their lead from men who don’t even pretend to be Conservatives and who support a party intent on the Tories’ destruction.
Of course, some Tories argue this is simple self-preservation, that to see off the electoral threat of the Brexit party they must harden their line on Brexit and, by implication, rid themselves even of Cabinet ministers who vote for Britain to leave the EU. They should read this paper by Professor David Cutts and others which offers good evidence that the Conservatives’ recent losses have been much more about Remain-minded voters in ‘affluent, older retirement areas’ deserting the party for the Lib Dems. There is a high electoral price to pay for narrowing the range of people and opinions you consider acceptable.
Will Conservatives frightened by the Brexit party decide that their only response is to become a Brexit party and purge anyone who falls short of a standard of purity largely set by people from outside their own party?
And will the members of the Conservative Party in south-west Hertfordshire dance to the tune of a man like Arron Banks? Or will they remember the history of their party, and the reasons it can still, for now, claim to be the most successful and durable party in democratic history?
In one of those quotes that is remembered but not understood, some people note that Disraeli once said that ‘England does not love coalitions’. In fact, the quote comes from a time when Disraeli was actively trying to form a coalition of interests between his Conservatives and Radical members of parliament.
He was doing so because he understood, as generations of British politicians have done until recently, that to succeed, a British political party has to be a coalition, an organisation big and flexible enough to encompass a large enough slice of the spectrum of opinion to command the support of a majority.
The most successful parties in recent memory have been founded on that concept. Tony Blair may have changed Labour and its direction, but he made a party big enough to accommodate his fellow modernisers but which still had room for the old Left: even in his pomp, he never considered expunging the likes of Corbyn. Likewise Margaret Thatcher: she may often (but not always) have sided with dry over wet, but she understood that the wets, the Tory Reform Group and the rest, were still a part of her party. She disagreed with her colleagues but did not seek to expel them: what pragmatic politician wants to make their party smaller?
A Conservative party that has no place for the likes of David Gauke is deciding it no longer wants to be a coalition. It is choosing instead to become a narrow sectional interest, the sect for some of the nation, not the nation as a whole. A cult, not a party. That is to give up on the idea of being a party of government, a party that can win majorities of its own.
In that sense then, the members of the South West Hertfordshire Conservative Association who vote later this week on David Gauke’s fate will be making an even more momentous decision than when their party chooses its new leader. For leaders come and go, but the will to govern, once abandoned, cannot easily be regained.