Boris insiders tell me they want to put off the fight for the soul of the Tory party. It may be too late

Andrew Grice
'Not so fast there, Arron', David Gauke tweets: PA

Another day, another nail in the coffin of One Nation Conservatism.

Four months ago, David Gauke was the minister of sticky wickets, sent out to bat for the team in media interviews when the side was collapsing. Today, this ultra-loyal Tory urged voters not to support Boris Johnson, and to back the Liberal Democrats in most seats.

The former justice secretary is to stand as an independent candidate in his South West Hertfordshire constituency to campaign for “centre ground values”, and has come out for a Final Say referendum. The Lib Dems would be wise to give him a clear run. But for them, anti-Tory cooperation seems to have its limits. Strangely, they seem determined to fight Gauke and to stand in Canterbury, even though their candidate there has stood down for Labour Remainer Rosie Duffield, who is defending a majority of 187.

Gauke is the third of the 21 Tories who lost the whip for opposing no deal to stand as an independent, along with Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield and Anne Milton in Guildford. It’s a pity that others, notably the former chancellor Philip Hammond, have decided not to join them.

The Tory party is changing dramatically before our eyes. That Kenneth Clarke (the best prime minister we never had), Sir Oliver Letwin, Justine Greening, Rory Stewart and Amber Rudd (who resigned the whip) left parliament without having it restored is a sad comment on the state of the party. Other liberal Tories – such as Sir Alistair Burt, Margot James, Richard Harrington, Sir Nicholas Soames, Richard Benyon and Ed Vaizey – belatedly got the whip back but are still walking away. Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach joined the Lib Dems.

Johnson insists his project is still “sensible, moderate, One Nation Conservatism”; allies suggest that once Brexit is done, he will revert to type – the liberal who twice won the mayoralty in “Labour London”. Yet that Boris Johnson probably disappeared once he pressed the button on the Leave article for The Daily Telegraph he wrote during the 2016 referendum, rather than the alternative Remain one.

That had the desired effect (eventually) of winning him the Tory leadership. As prime minister, his shift to the right continued as he wooed hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group and kicked moderate pro-Europeans out of his party.

Johnson’s direction of travel veered further to the right this week when Nigel Farage unveiled an unofficial pact under which his Brexit Party will stand aside in the 317 seats the Tories won in 2017. Johnson can claim it was a unilateral action. But Farage claimed Johnson cleared the path by promising not to extend the transitional period after the UK leaves the EU beyond December 2020.

This was a factor in Gauke’s decision: he is worried that another “no deal” cliff edge would loom, with little or no prospect of a free trade agreement being struck by then.

The episode shows where Johnson’s priorities lie: Brexit comes first. True, he needs to colonise the Leave vote, and will be cheered the first opinion poll since the Farage pact puts the Tories 14 points ahead.

Yet Johnson also needs the votes of some of the 4 million Tory supporters who backed Remain in 2016. Many see Farage as toxic and so will not welcome this pact with the devil. That’s why Vote Leave froze Farage out of its 2016 campaign, and the Tories said recently he was not a “fit and proper” person to be allowed anywhere near government.

Despite that, he is fit and proper enough for an election pact. There could be a downside that dilutes its impact in the south, by pushing more moderate Tories into the Lib Dem column.

Privately, some Tory candidates who publicly back Johnson worry about the signals their party is sending. They bite their lip for now, not wanting to rock the election boat, and hope Johnson can again be steered away from no deal later. “Boris had nowhere else to go,” one Tory insider told me. “We have had to put off the battle for the soul of the party for another day.”

But will that be too late? If Johnson remains in power, the centre of gravity of the Tory parliamentary party will shift to the Eurosceptic right; remaining moderates such as Greg Clark and Stephen Hammond will be an endangered species. Their influence would be very limited if Johnson won a comfortable majority – which is why Gauke hopes for another hung parliament.

Johnson is not home and dry, yet. Yes, elections are about public services, the economy, the best prime minister – but they are also a smell test by voters of a party and leader, which includes their values and who’s backing them. For those who prefer Gauke to Farage, the test can only have one result.

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