Someone told me I’d been cast into the outer darkness but I think it’s into the light,” says Dominic Grieve, who is doing something he’s never done before — fighting at an election to beat a Conservative Party candidate.
In the grey murk of a November dawn he’s flagging down passengers at Beaconsfield station, handing out campaign leaflets printed in an elegant British Racing Green. His job? To overturn the 24,543 majority he won as a Tory just two years ago.
Now he’s at the heart of an improbable insurgency that’s sweeping the Chilterns. Not far away along the route of the Chiltern Hundreds bus, which ambles its way through prosperous commuter towns beneath golden beech woods, his former fellow Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke is also running as an independent aiming to block Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit.
“Vote for me to stop the Tories,” he says in wonder, trying out a slogan he could never have imagined he’d need to use. “I still sometimes find myself saying ‘we’,” he admits when it comes to his old party.
If Johnson loses this election, it might be because he’s also lost the sort of voters who once put this pair of impressive, articulate politicians into Parliament as Conservative MPs.
In normal circumstances they wouldn’t have a chance of winning outside the party system. But spend a day in the Chilterns and you wonder if something extraordinary isn’t happening. “In theory I ought to lose but in practice I might just do it, there is a buzz happening,” says Grieve.
He’s not making it up. Passing car drivers hoot their horns in support and passersby ask for selfies. A lot of people thank him for standing. “Be careful in the road,” one warns him kindly as he dashes out with a leaflet — the first he has written that doesn’t praise the Tories after 48 years of party membership.
Dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit in fine grey tweed, with a handkerchief folded neatly into his breast pocket, the former attorney general who led the Commons fight for MPs to have a say on Brexit is an unlikely radical.
But to spend a morning with him is to feel freed from the grim constraints of established party politics and a lot of people, including Grieve himself, seem to be warming to it. In a cafe, his likeable Labour opponent even comes over to shake his hand. Already his campaign is having to turn away donations and it’s bringing in supporters who had never dreamed of backing a Tory, as well as established party members who have resigned to help him win.
One of those handing out leaflets is Anne Shaw, wearing a blue woollen hat with the EU’s gold stars sewn into it — bought specially in Brussels, says. She last campaigned in an election in 1979. Now she’s volunteered, to stop Brexit. Grieve is getting support, too, from local Liberal Democrats who aren’t putting up a candidate this time.
Not everyone is backing him — a man glowers from one of the constant stream of Range Rovers and Porches which seems to make up much of the traffic outside Waitrose. But a lot of local people seem to share his dismay that “the whole moderate wing of the Conservative party has been purged”.
Just over the county border in the seat of South West Hertfordshire, Gauke is another of those who suddenly found themselves excluded from a Tory party they used to help run — in his memoirs David Cameron says he had Gauke lined up as the next chancellor if the 2016 referendum had gone the other way.
Unlike Grieve, he served in Theresa May’s government, and though he voted Remain hoped we would end up with a soft Brexit. But when that failed he voted to block no-deal earlier this year and was cast out. A handful of rebels are running again as Tories. But Gauke isn’t one of them. “I felt a huge sense of relief when the whip was restored to others and not me,” he says. “I would have been in a really difficult position, finding myself campaigning for the Conservative Party and hoping it didn’t get a majority.”
Inexplicably, given Gauke says he now backs a second referendum and might vote LibDem if he lived elsewhere, the Lib Dems are standing against him, which he admits will make it harder for him to win in a seat where he needs to overturn the 19,550 majority he won as a Tory in 2017.
But Gauke tries to be polite about it. Many local LibDem and Labour supporters tell him they will back him anyway, he says. “The thing that comes over most strongly is that a lot of people feel politically homeless,” he says. “I want a sensible approach that tells the truth and doesn’t deny the obvious risks of a hard Brexit.”
This is the revolt of the reasonable people: and though Brexit is the trigger you sense there’s a lot more behind the momentum they are building. Both Grieve and Gauke say their old local Tory associations had been joined by a swarm of Right-wing pro-Brexit activists who then tried to deselect them as candidates. Hardline views don’t go down well around here. “People are sophisticated, intelligent, well-intentioned and not going to fall for empty promises,” says Gauke.
At least that’s what he hopes. He made up his mind to stand only last week after drawing up a list of the pros and cons, and his campaign is still in the planning stages. He looks at a map of his long, thin constituency which runs from commuter towns like Tring to the M25. In one corner it touches Grieve’s Buckinghamshire seat where the latter has had more time to prepare. Already he has got a professional campaign chief in place and has sent two mailouts to voters.
Both men know that for the next four weeks the Conservatives will target them with a simple attack: however nice they seem, a vote for them risks letting in Labour. “I don’t really look like a Corbynista,” laughs Grieve, who promises that in a hung Parliament he would refuse to put the Labour leader into Number 10. “There’s no way I am going to allow Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister,” insists Gauke.
In a stylish modern house near Beaconsfield station a group of voters have got together over coffee and croissants to hear Grieve put his case. When I ask them if they had ever been to a political meeting before they cry in horror at the idea: a lot had never voted Tory, but they agreed about the insanity of Brexit and seemed to warm to the now-independent candidate who wanted their backing.
What stood out is that their worries aren’t just about Brexit. They felt the Tories and Labour were out of touch on other issues they cared about too: pollution on the school run, the danger of letting kids cycle on the crowded roads of the Chilterns, and the threat of ugly development. They were stylish, passionate, fluent, reasonable and well-informed. “We are voting on behalf of our children,” one said.
They are the new silent majority: the mainstream voters Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron once fought to win over, who now feel forgotten amid the rush to the extremes.
Whatever happens in the Chilterns on December 12, something has shifted. People like this want their country back. “I don’t think I’m going back into my old party,” says Grieve, “There may have to be a realignment of British politics is the Conservative party is going where I think it is going,” says Gauke. The fightback has begun. It’s very polite, it might not be scaring Johnson and Corbyn yet but it’s definitely in with a chance.