Boris Johnson’s divisive strategy risks turning the Conservatives into a “Farage-lite” party that will alienate millions of traditional Conservative voters, the former justice secretary David Gauke has warned.
Speaking after he and 20 colleagues lost the Conservative whip this week for supporting legislation aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit, Gauke said voters in his South West Hertfordshire constituency were baffled by the purge.
“Middle-class commuters in Rickmansworth and Berkhamsted are wondering whether the Conservative party is the party that they have traditionally supported. And they certainly don’t want to support a Farage-lite party,” he told the Guardian.
Less than three months ago, Gauke was the justice secretary and lord chancellor: an ancient title that carries the right to wear ceremonial gold-embroidered robes. By the end of this week he was holed up in a shabby House of Commons office, watching the Old Trafford cricket Test on TV.
In contrast with Hammond’s barely concealed fury, Gauke said he felt “immensely sad” about the chain of events that led to his expulsion from the party he joined in fresher’s week at university 29 years ago. But his condemnation of the prime minister was no less devastating for its laid-back delivery.
“I don’t like the idea of being chucked out of parliament, chucked out of the party, for basically doing the bleeding obvious: trying to stop an absolutely damaging policy, that a responsible political party should be opposing vigorously,” he said.
“Boris Johnson was elected on a strategy that went down well with members, but was inevitably going to collide with reality and unravel. And it’s happened more quickly than it might have done, for reasons for which he and his team are responsible.”
In particular, he said, he had concerns about the role of Johnson’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings. “In the end, the buck stops with the PM. But it does seem to me that Mr Cummings is extraordinarily influential, and it is his strategy, he is the driving force.
“He’s out of control, and Boris needs to take back control, to coin a phrase.”
Gauke resigned from Theresa May’s cabinet in her final days as prime minister rather than give Johnson the satisfaction of firing him.
Even as a cabinet minister he had taken delight in trolling the Brexit wing of his party, styling himself as the slayer of Brexit “unicorns”. On his summer break, he posted on Twitter a picture of himself posing with a unicorn inflatable.
Despite his concerns, Gauke returned minded to give the new prime minister the benefit of the doubt, rather than support measures to block a no-dealBrexitimmediately.
But Johnson’s decision to shut down parliament, and his combative approach, made the rebels feel they were being “goaded”, he said.
“I think the proroguing of parliament, the comments about not necessarily abiding by legislation, and then the threat of withdrawing the whip didn’t deter anybody. And there was a distinct sense that this was all part of a deliberate plan, that they were trying to goad us,” he said.
“He was deliberately picking a fight, because he wanted the Conservative party to win over all the votes of the Brexit party, and to do that he essentially had to rebadge the Conservative party as the Brexit party.”
Johnson has repeatedly insisted he is working hard to secure a new Brexit deal without the “anti-democratic” Northern Irish backstop. But Gauke said he had seen little evidence of progress when he was invited to No 10 earlier this week as Johnson and the Brexit negotiator, David Frost, made a last-ditch attempt to win over the rebels.
“All the evidence I am hearing from Whitehall is the cupboard is bare,” he said. “One of the things we were told at the meeting on Tuesday by David Frost is that we haven’t submitted our proposals up until now, because if we did, we think they would just be rejected out of hand.
“He went on to say, to be fair, that once we’ve shown that parliament can’t step in the way, then we think we’re going to get a better reception. But you can’t simultaneously say: ‘We’re making very, very good progress, but they haven’t even seen our proposals yet’. So they’re just taking a punt that somehow all will be fine.”
Gauke has been scrambling to understand the implications of losing the Conservative whip, which Downing Street has insisted will prevent him from standing for the party at the next general election, whenever it comes.
“I can see nothing incompatible about being a Conservative MP and not wanting to crash the country into a brick wall, but it appears that that is no longer the case.”
As an extraordinary week in Westminster drew to a close, Gauke said he had no regrets about his membership of what has become known as the “Gaukeward squad”.
“I feel a greater sense of purpose and determination to achieve something significant than I’ve ever had the opportunity to before,” he said. “This might be the end of my political career, but I think I’m doing it for all the right reasons, and I think history will judge that those of us who stepped in this week have done something pretty damn useful.
“You’d rather do something positive rather than preventing something bad. But I’m utterly convinced that I’ve been doing the right thing – and that’s not a bad feeling to have.”