Unnatural Rebels: One Nation Tories on the fight to stop no deal

Posted On: 
4th July 2019

A number of leading Conservatives could find themselves on the backbenches when the new prime minister enters No 10. With MPs facing deselection threats, and as their numbers diminish in the Commons, can One Nation Conservatives fight back? Sebastian Whale speaks to David Gauke and others about the future of Tory centrists

David Gauke is expected to return to the backbenches if Boris Johnson becomes PM
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

The One Nation parliamentary dining club was set up in the mid-20th century by Conservative co-conspirators Rab Butler, Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell. Membership was by invite only. A year after entering Parliament, a Tory MP from the 2010 intake was excited to receive the call.

At his first event, the enthusiastic politician wanted to know more; what was their purpose, what were they congregated for. “Oh, for f***’s sake,” a senior MP joked at the time. “We’re here to dine. Don’t be so bloody vulgar.”

By December of last year, the mood had changed. “I’ve bloody had enough of just spectating on the way this great party of ours is being dragged down into the gutter. It’s time we mobilised,” the same grandee said. Turning to his colleague who he teasingly admonished more than seven years earlier, he added: “I know you said that years ago, but anyway, here we are.”

A formal dining club could no longer cut it. “There was a feeling of it’s not enough to sit around and have companionable meals,” says a member. “There was a need to be more muscular in asserting ourselves.”

The One Nation Group of Conservative MPs was announced in March. The caucus agreed to put forward a series of values, compiled by former minister and policy guru George Freeman, rather than come out for a particular Brexit outcome or candidate for prime minister. Though the group is split over its view on no deal (more on this later), the majority voted in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement and do not support a second referendum. Around 60-80 MPs are members.

But for some involved with the group, the move by the party’s centrists is “quite little” and “quite late”. “In my view, we sort of stopped fighting. We became complacent in the years when Cameron was in No 10 and it seemed just like we’ve won now so we don’t need to keep having this fight. Guess what, you do,” says one.

Belatedly or not, the One Nation Group are determined to make themselves heard in today's Conservative party. But with leading figures such as Ken Clarke set to depart the Commons, and torchbearers facing deselection threats at constituency level, is their strand of Conservatism on the way out?

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The One Nation Group meets every Monday. Sir Nicholas Soames is its effective honorary president, while Nicky Morgan is a key organiser. Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is a leading Cabinet figurehead. So too is David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, who I meet on a Wednesday afternoon in his ministerial office in Westminster.

Gauke entered parliament in 2005 as a eurosceptic. The MP for South West Hertfordshire used to be a member of the European Research Group, and at one point, was even its treasurer. He is now seen as one of the leading bastions of the anti-no deal movement. “I think it would be fair to say that both the ERG and my views have evolved quite a lot since then. We’ve grown apart,” he says.

Gauke served as one of Osborne’s deputies in the Treasury for six years. The phrase “uncork the Gauke” was coined after the minister went out to bat for the Government, often to defuse rows. Theresa May rewarded him with a Cabinet post as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2016.

For a man who garnered a reputation for loyalty, it seems odd to see him viewed as the leader of the so-called ‘Gaukeward squad’. “I don’t think I’m one of life’s natural rebels,” he understatedly says. But for abstaining on a vote on to prevent a no deal exit, Gauke has not been a rebellious figure. “I’ve never voted against a three-line whip, I’ve never gone into the lobbies against my side in 14 years in parliament.”

But Gauke is determined to take a stand against a WTO exit from the European Union, an outcome he argues would have “very considerable” consequences for the UK and its people. “I’m determined to ensure that we don’t inflict very significant economic pain on our fellow citizens.”

Gauke initially backed Rory Stewart's bid for the Tory leadership. He now supports Jeremy Hunt, who has set out detailed plans of circumstances in which he could countenance supporting leaving empty-handed. Boris Johnson has said he would exit the EU on 31 October “come what may, do or die”.

Gauke says it would be “practically impossible” to exit on Halloween with a deal in place. “I worry about that. I’ve certainly not heard a clear explanation of how that can be done or indeed how that can be done when parliament will be determined to try to stop it,” he argues.

Johnson, who is currently the frontrunner, has said MPs must be signed up to his Brexit plans to enter his Cabinet. Gauke, therefore, looks set to join the backbenches along with Philip Hammond, Greg Clarke and, of course, Theresa May.

The question for all those opposed to no deal, however, is how to prevent it from happening. An extension would require consent from all EU member states, and Johnson for one has ruled out requesting a delay. Recent efforts in the Commons to find a creative solution have fallen short. But Gauke, who would not support a vote of no confidence in a Tory PM (“the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister is one that chills me even more than a no deal Brexit”), is confident that MPs will conjure something up. “If I was to speculate on it, given that we have an activist Speaker, given that there is a parliamentary majority against no deal, a way will be found,” Gauke argues.

He doubts that Johnson would call a general election in such an eventuality, arguing it could precipitate a Labour government. “That is a very difficult choice, particularly if your language has been so strong about we will definitely – do or die – have left the European Union on 31st of October,” he says.

The Prime Minister of the day could prorogue parliament until the deadline has come and gone – an option Johnson has refused to rule out. Gauke says that would be a “constitutional outrage” and would lead to MPs gathering in nearby Methodist Hall in a bid to stop the next leader in their tracks. “In what would be most extraordinary circumstances, I think you would find you’d get most extraordinary responses,” he says.

“You would have the executive up against parliament, and I think a clear majority of parliament. There would be a large number of Conservative MPs who would consider that behaviour to be beyond the pale. I don’t for a moment believe that Boris Johnson would prorogue parliament. But I do think he ought to make that clear. He should provide some clarity on that."

Gauke suggests the conference recess, scheduled for the middle of September through to early October, should be cancelled. “There’s definitely a case for parliament sitting during that period.” Nicky Morgan also believes the recess should be cancelled.

In the week before we meet, Gauke survived a vote of no-confidence in his constituency Conservative Association by 123 to 61. The minister had been the latest target of political campaign group Leave.EU, who had sought to claim its “first Cabinet scalp”.  Despite the vote, Gauke plays down comparisons to the Conservative right seizing control of the party in the same way the left took the citadel in Labour.

“You can draw parallels, but I think that the scale is completely different,” he argues. However, he adds: “But is there a risk that in the years ahead the Conservative party becomes increasingly a populist, to some extent nationalist party? That it narrows its appeal, that the range of views that are considered to be acceptable become significantly narrower, that the next generation of candidates that are selected are selected on a strict test of their enthusiasm for a no deal Brexit, for example? I do worry that that might be the future for the Conservative party.”

He draws comparisons to the Republicans in the US, who, he argues, have moved towards a more “red meat populist, protectionist party”. “As I say, I don’t think it has happened necessarily yet,” he continues. Gauke insists there is a responsibility on the One Nation Group to push for the party to remain a broad church.

Nicky Morgan says: “There is no doubt that the beefing up of the One Nation presence in the party is absolutely about trying to make sure that we learn the lessons of what we’ve seen in Momentum, and we don’t allow it to happen in the Conservative party.”

Given what Gauke has experienced at constituency level, would he stand again as an MP? “Oh yes, absolutely,” he replies.

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While there is much common ground in the One Nation Group, divisions have emerged over the question of no deal. Some are implacably opposed, others subscribe to Theresa May’s mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Senior Tories associated with the group, including Cabinet minister Matt Hancock and former de facto deputy PM Damian Green, have come out in support of Johnson.

“I just think that kind of puts us in a slightly awkward position, because Damian is clearly signalling one way and Amber another,” says one member.

Another argues there has been a “scrabble for influence” in the new administration. Commenting on Hancock, they say: “I think his instincts are noble, which is why let Boris form an ERG-administration when those of us who have concerns can join in and try and balance the ticket.”

Gauke agrees that there should be a “range of views around the Cabinet table” to influence the new PM. “That strikes me as a perfectly respectable thing to do,” he says. But he adds: “I do feel that in the end somebody is going to feel very disappointed. So, whether it’s going to be people like Matt Hancock or whether it’s going to be Mark Francois, this will, in the end, be quite binary and on the 1st of November, one group of people or another are going to feel very let down.”

Splits in the One Nation Group have filtered out into the press. One member no longer attends the Monday meetings after a succession of leaks. “I don’t think there’s any great secret that there have been some robust discussions in the group,” says Nicky Morgan. “There is a difference of opinion on no deal.”

While many harbour concerns about the candidates’ rhetoric, others reckon it’s more bluster than substance. Paul Masterton, MP for East Renfrewshire, believes Johnson’s “do or die” pledge was “just classic Boris nonsense”. “It was meaningless. That’s a classic silly thing that a politician says to get a clap from the audience that they are in front of at that particular point of time,” he tells me over coffee in Westminster.

Backbencher Antoinette Sandbach, who has not declared for either leadership contender, comments: “I have to say that I’m quite concerned about statements from both of the candidates. I am someone who has consistently said that I won’t support a no deal.”

All the Tory MPs I spoke to agree that the new leader should be given enough time to try and cobble together a new Brexit agreement. But four MPs refuse to rule out voting against Johnson in a vote of no confidence if, as PM, he planned to take the UK out of the EU with no deal. “Never say never,” says one former minister. Sandbach says: “I’m not going to speculate. My decisions will have to be made at the time.”

A former minister says it would be “almost impossible” for them to act in a way that “facilitated” a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. “I would be very unlikely to vote against my own government in a no-confidence motion,” they say. “There are some highly principled people who would vote against the Government on a no-confidence motion, but it would be a massive thing for somebody to do and it would be the end of their political career in this party. There are some people who would be prepared to pay that price, and there are others for whom that is not a sacrifice they could make.”

Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, is especially critical of Johnson, who he argues has the “attention of a gnat”. The backbencher, who is backing Hunt, predicts that the Brexiteer would lose a vote of no confidence if the motion was lodged at the beginning of October. “I’m not saying now I would never ever vote against Mr Johnson as Prime Minister in a vote of confidence. If he is selected by my party as the leader then that is a democratic decision, I have to accept that and give him a chance to prove that he can do something that he hasn’t done in the past and deliver. But if he can’t deliver, I think he will be very vulnerable indeed.”

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The concept of One Nation Conservatism has been around since Benjamin Disraeli remarked in 1837 that “the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing”. While the term originally related to uniting the classes, it has since been associated with uniting the kingdom, and more recently become a byword for socially liberal Conservativism. The Tory Reform Group (TRG), a Conservative-affiliated pressure group, was set up in 1975 to promote the vales of the One Nation vision. MPs tell The House that membership of the TRG is on the rise. They are also buoyed by the relative success of Rory Stewart’s leadership campaign.

At the start of the Tory leadership race, the One Nation Group held hustings to encourage the candidates to sign up to their values. The caucus has commitments around the union, global leadership, the life chances agenda, social responsibility, investment in public services, localism, environmental stewardship, belief in free enterprise, law and human rights and democratic renewal.

“We wanted to know they were going to take the One Nation voice seriously,” says Morgan. The group also pushed to ensure there was “more than just two hard Brexit voices” in the final run-off.

One member of the group says Brexit and One Nation Conservatism is a tough square to circle. But the UK’s exit from the EU should be used as an opportunity to push for a radical agenda. “If we were a bit clearer on the One Nation Tory vision of beyond Brexit Britain, we could cut ourselves a bit of slack and elasticity as to how we get there,” they say. “The implicit divisiveness of the act demands a more and more radical boldness in the reunification policies.”

A danger for Cameronite Conservatives is ending up like moderates in the Labour party who, out outflanked by members of the left, have been impotent and lacking in ideas. MPs are cognisant of this and are pushing their policy agenda to ensure their offer does not go stale.

“In the end, Brexit is a counter Cameronite, counter modernising reality. It just is. And therefore, the Cameron modernisers are on the back foot,” says an MP. “But against that, I also think there’s something else which is that One Nation doesn’t necessarily mean Cameron modernisation. There is a more muscular, gritty, post-Cameronite, less virtue signalling, less Notting Hill more Nottingham, One Nationism.”

Gauke comments: “It’s worth bearing in mind that the big issue is Brexit. If you put aside Brexit, which is a big if, but if you do that, the differences between the range of views of Conservative MPs are pretty narrow.”

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A senior member of the One Nation Group says unless there is a “smoking lover” or a “smoking love child”, Johnson will become the next UK prime minister. “Boris is cometh the hour, cometh the man. He is the SAS stun grenade of British politics. He could distract people while the painful surgery is carried out.”

In such an event, several One Nation Tories could be heading to the backbenches. So, what can the group learn from the ERG? The eurosceptic faction has been a thorn in the side of successive prime ministers and an effective campaigning force in British politics.

“The ERG, certainly for a period of time, felt like a party within a party. They appeared to have from the outside a whipping structure and were highly organised and everything else. We would say that we are not a party within a party, but we absolutely want there to be a space for like-minded Conservatives to meet and to discuss and to potentially discuss approaches to government business, issues of the day,” says Morgan.

Sandbach argues: “There are ways of putting pressure on that don’t revolve around using some of the underhand methods of the ERG.”

MPs in the One Nation Group are not your natural rebels. Many are at pains not to vote against their government. Once in the majority, the caucus now finds itself increasingly isolated in the wider Conservative party. Brexit, which is in many ways antithetical to their beliefs, is very much in tune with much of the party base. But MPs insist that the UK’s EU departure does not have to spell the end of their political cause.

Masterton says: “There is certainly an argument that the Conservative party of Cameron and of Davidson that I joined at times feels a bit like it’s slipping away. But again, if you remove Brexit from the equation, actually most of us are singing from the same hymn sheet… I still think that there’s a modern, outward-looking Conservative party there. It’s just it’s struggling to get airtime at the moment because Brexit is all-consuming.”