ELECTION 2019: Inside David Gauke’s bid to stop Brexit and Boris Johnson
Since its creation in 1950, the affluent South West Hertfordshire constituency has elected a string of Conservative MPs, but with Brexit fracturing the political system across the country, can one ex-Tory pull off a major upset and vanquish his own former party? John Johnston reports.
In the small market town of Tring, David Gauke is walking the same roads, and knocking on the same doors as he has done for the past 14 years.
But for the 48-year-old former Cabinet minister, this election is unlike any he has fought before. His blue Conservative rosette has been replaced by a burgundy scarf in the same colour as his new leaflets, and where once he might have expected a visit from his party’s high-tech battlebus, he now shuttles his volunteers around in his family’s Ford Galaxy.
The newly-independent candidate is hoping he can tear down the 19,500 Conservative majority he has spent the last decade-and-a-half building up.
His transformation from senior government minister to defrocked Tory MP was rapid. After resigning as Justice Secretary just hours after Boris Johnson was elected leader of his party in late July, Gauke quickly established himself as the de-facto co-ordinator of the pro-Remain Tory rebels in his party, who came to be known as the “Gaukward squad”.
But less than two months later a Commons confrontation between Mr Johnson and the group over his Brexit plans would lead to Gauke and 20 fellow Tory rebels being expelled from the party.
Despite losing the vast campaign resources that come from being a member of a mainstream party, the ex-Tory has managed to pull together an impressive local operation, with dozens of volunteers from across the political spectrum drawn in by his stand against a hard Brexit.
“We've had moments on the high street where we had a Liberal Democrat, a Conservative member who was just about to resign from the party, the former secretary of the local Labour Party and me,” he says.
“We've got people from all sides. It's a huge range. We've got lots of Labour people, lots of Conservatives... some people who've never campaigned before and some who are experienced.”
But in a party-dominated system, the merits of standing as a free agent are a harder sell on the doorstep. One young mother is unsure how it all works, and Gauke is forced to drift away from his policy plans to reassure her that as an independent MP his vote would count as much as it had before.
“I get it quite a lot,” he says. “They ask: ‘Do you still have a vote? Does it sort of matter?’ I think people are eminently persuadable...But you do have to keep reassuring them.”
And with such a short campaign, it is those sorts of concerns which risk distracting voters from the one issue he thinks can win him this election: Brexit.
“I think we are sleepwalking toward a crisis,” he says as he marches between doors. “I think people will look back at this general election campaign and ask why we weren’t talking about what a WTO Brexit looks like, the likelihood of having a WTO Brexit.
“Because when Boris Johnson says he is not going to extend the implementation period, I believe him. Politically he has been completely boxed in.
“Given the [Conservative] manifesto says no extension to the implementation period. Given the Cabinet is full of people who are committed to no extension, and if you want to progress in Conservative Party it is a gift to walk out because you become a darling of the right...and Boris is very conscious of that.
“So you factor all of that in, and Boris will probably stubbornly believe that all of it will be fine.
“Does the public know we are having a general election which is probably going to give Boris Johnson a small majority and he is going to have a mandate to do it?
“And it is going to be very hard for anyone to say or do anything about it after this election, and it will be that we, as a country, are going to endorse a very self-destructive policy without having properly analysed it, discussed it or understood it, and it's deeply frustrating.”
On the other side of the picturesque town, his Conservative successor, Gagan Mohindra seems keen to avoid getting bogged down in an argument over Brexit or the kind of future trading relationship we might have with the bloc come 2021. Instead, he claims the voters he meets in the constituency are more concerned about the personalities of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson and their ability to run the UK economy.
An Essex County councillor, Mohindra has only recently found a flat to rent in the constituency from which to run his campaign, but in a sign of growing confidence, he suggests his parents are already discussing a potential relocation to the area should he be successful on 12 December.
Meanwhile, back on the doorstep, David Gauke is facing another hurdle.
Like some of his fellow Tory rebel comrades, he had entered discussions with the Liberal Democrats to see if they might provide a suitable new political home. But the discussions fell apart, with Gauke saying he felt moving immediately from one party to another would be seen as “inauthentic”.
But it is a decision which could cost him dearly in the campaign. Unlike other seats where Jo Swinson’s party have stepped aside for independent Tory rebels, the Liberal Democrats have chosen to stand in South West Hertfordshire, bringing a significant risk of splitting the Remain vote.
“We are sort of squeezing their vote, but every Lib Dem you find who says they are sticking with the Lib Dems... it is frustrating, and they have sort of dug in,” he says.
“There were conversations, but for me leaving one tribe and going straight to another would have looked inauthentic and would have meant I couldn't have won.”
He adds: “There are people who are campaigning for me who are Conservatives, or are estranged from the Conservative Party who would have found it much harder to support me if I'd have run as a Liberal Democrat.”
It is clear that even savvy pro-Remain voters are conflicted on who to support. Despite winning the backing from anti-Brexit tactical voting sites, Gauke is still forced to spend time on the doorstep convincing voters he is the only candidate who can defeat his former party.
Others admire his principled stand over Brexit, but remain tribally committed to the Liberal Democrats, even if they admit the party have no chance of winning in the seat.
“It's so bloody obvious,” he says in a rare flash of frustration after one such exchange. “Even if, for argument's sake, the Lib Dems and me are even-stevens, which is not the case, we know there is a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote.
“Look around at comparable seats. This might have been different if there was a sort of Jo Swinson surge, but there isn't. This was about 80th on the list of Lib Dem targets for this election.
“They are not going to win 80 seats. There is no feasible way the Lib Dems can win this seat.”
Despite these significant struggles, the former MP is clearly enjoying taking his anti-Brexit message out on the doorstep, and undeterred by the long hours and biting cold, he says he is having fun.
Unshackled from party campaign managers, he’s even managed to go viral on Twitter with a heart-warming video he filmed with his father. In another, he delivers a pitch-perfect impression of ex-Tory grandee Ken Clarke who has endorsed his campaign.
"He decided not to join us"
A 15 minute drive away in Berkhamstead, Liberal Democrat candidate Sally Symington is not convinced her party’s decision to stand would have cleared the path for David Gauke to win next week’s contest. Instead, she is keen to highlight the anger that some in the seat feel at his role as a senior cabinet minister, including as Work and Pensions Secretary.
“It is not a case of 2+2=4,” she says. “There are a lot of Liberal Democrats in this seat who will never vote for David Gauke. You need to understand there are people who have seen him here as the Conservative MP for 14 years.
“There are very many policies that have gone through Parliament in which he was a key player. You know, he was a Cabinet minister.”
After a strong showing in the recent EU and local elections, Ms Symington suggests Mr Gauke’s ambitions to return a pro-Remain voice for the seat would have been better served by him joining her party rather than attempting to go it alone.
“Do I think it would be better if one one of us were standing? Obviously, it’d be better if only one person was standing for the Remain argument. But we are where we are,” she said.
“David Gauke had very high level discussions with the Liberal Democrats...And he, for whatever reason decided not to join us.”
She added: “This is why it is not like other seats, we have a strength and depth in the community.”
With such a drastic change in circumstances in the seat it is hard to predict how this fractured constituency could shift in little under a week’s time. If the bookies and the pollsters are to be believed, David Gauke has given up his seat and his political career to put, as he believes, the country before his party.
But with British politics in a state of flux, David Gauke could be one of a wave of new independent MPs whose election to Parliament could change the course of the election and the future of Brexit.