It could all have been so very, very different

Anyone but Johnson: composite image created by Anthea Bareham

For the purpose of this article, let us accept that the Conservatives are in power and were in power when some of the events referred to occurred. Readers may say “But what if it had been Corbyn or Starmer?”. Please set that alternative scenario to one side. I am looking at what was genuinely a possible alternative future for a more moderate Conservative party.

Listening to Rory Stewart’s candid, compassionate and well-informed analysis of the situation in Afghanistan was painful in so many ways. Firstly, of course, because of the terrible fate that awaits the Afghan people as a consequence of our withdrawal and the 74 per cent cut to aid; secondly, because of the betrayal of that country and of our own reputation as a nation of integrity and honour; and thirdly because he could have been the UK’s Prime Minister, representing us on the world stage. Instead, a heavily-infiltrated far-right Conservative party membership picked the ‘funny man’, the chancer, the liar – the man who promised to deliver their ‘Britain first’, Trumpian dream.

Whichever way you look at it, however you voted, can there be any doubt that Rory Stewart would have made a better job of the leadership role than Boris Johnson? He is intelligent, experienced and, as far as we know, honest. He certainly appears to have a conscience, which is something utterly lacking in Johnson’s vainglorious, mendacious make up.

Listen to him speaking about Covid-19 and ask yourself if he would have considered more than 131,000 deaths a mark of the government’s best endeavours or, in fact, an abject failure, especially when compared with the countries Stewart cited as policy role models. Would he have hung about, dithering, reluctant to take action before it was forced upon him?

 And listen to him on Brexit and parliamentary sovereignty. Do you think he would have chosen to totally ignore the 48 per-cent-plus who did NOT vote for Brexit? Would he have vilified and ridiculed them? Would he have been eternally blowing the nationalist dog whistle? I don’t think so.

Look. He’s far from perfect. He voted for article 50, despite there being no plan. He voted away our membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, and voted away the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU. He is certainly no pin-up for the anti-Brexit camp and he was no supporter of a second referendum, though for possibly sounder, less blindly ideological reasons.

But he absolutely has got the measure of Johnson.

Would Stewart have illegally prorogued Parliament? Would he have made racist jokes? Would he have lied repeatedly in parliament and elsewhere? Would he have tried to get donors to fund a lavish refurb? Would he have trashed the Nolan Principles? Would he…?

Well, you get the picture, and you may ask why I am wasting my time and yours even speculating about a fantasy parallel universe in which we, quite simply, did things better because we did not have Johnson and his cabal of venal, corrupt, cruel and incompetent sycophants and stormtroopers.

It’s worth remembering just who Johnson chose to expel from the party because they rebelled against him in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Twenty-one MPs who could see what a disaster a no deal would be. Twenty-one MPs who wanted to delay the Brexit date rather than being railroaded into no deal or a bad deal…like the one we have, with all its ‘unforeseen’ consequences – wholly foreseen by anyone who understands what being a third country means!.

Philip Hammond, former chancellor of the exchequer, MP for Runnymede and Weybridge and leader of the rebels. Constantly accused by the rabid Brexiters of exaggerating the economic impact of Brexit. He doesn’t gloat “Told you so” but he did tell them so and he was right. Give Rishi the heave-ho.

David Gauke, former justice secretary and MP South West Hertfordshire. Said he was prepared to put the national interest ahead of his own future career prospects by voting against the government, and that he would not be complicit in something which would see people lose their jobs. I’d like to see him boot Buckland into the long grass.

Dominic Grieve, former attorney general and advocate for a second referendum to ensure the deal on offer met the electorate’s expectations from the promises made back in 2016. Described Johnson, with unnerving accuracy, “as a vacuum of integrity”. A champion of the rule of law and a man of clear honour and enormous experience, it beggars belief that he should be replaced as MP of Beaconsfield by a woman whose main claim to fame is her suggestion that we should all be able to write to our MPs and ask for a free portrait of the Queen.  And as for the role of attorney general…Suella Braverman…advocate of breaking international law.

Ken Clarke, now Lord Clarke of Nottingham, former MP for Rushcliffe, father of the house, former chancellor and home secretary,  The only MP to have the wit and principle to vote against triggering Article 50 when there was no plan as to what to do next. More wisdom and experience than you can shake a stick at. Also saw straight through Johnson and Patel, calling for the latter to be sacked over bullying claims.

I’d take him over Patel in a heartbeat…he has one, after all!

Sir Oliver Letwin, ex-Cabinet minister who championed a cross-party bill which compelled Theresa May to seek an extension at a time when no deal was, as was so frequently to be the case, the grim prospect facing the UK. Consummate parliamentarian and a very popular West Dorset MP. Move over, Gove. Here’s a fundamentally decent man who won’t run VIP channels and choke off freedom of information requests.

Justine Greening, former education secretary and Putney MP. To quote a BBC report at the time:
She warned that Parliament’s ability to be a force for change, particularly in terms of improving social mobility, was being compromised by “Brexit myopia”.

She voted three times against Theresa May’s Brexit agreement, saying it neither delivered on the promises made to Leave voters, nor gave anything to younger Remain.

Warning her party was morphing into The Brexit Party, she said she would support legislation to keep all Brexit options “on the table” and to ensure Parliament has a real say in the outcome.

Oh how prescient was she? Would you rather have had her as education secretary than the lamentable, execrable Gavin Williamson?

Alastair Burt, former minister and MP for North East Bedfordshire. Again quoting the BBC article: “if we are being purged now, then who is next?”.

He said the Brexit convulsions in his party “may have curtailed my future but it will not rob me of what I believe, and I will walk out of here looking up at the sky, not down at my shoes”.

And then there’s Dr Sarah Wollaston, admittedly not a victim of the ‘cull’ in September 2019 and now a LibDem, but not, I warrant, someone who would willingly have served under Johnson. The GP and former MP for Totnes in Devon and chair of the important Health Select Committee was big enough to change her mind and switch from Leave to Remain before June 2016, and then resigned from the party in order to try to stop Brexit. Now back in general practice and deeply critical of government’s handling of the pandemic, and critical of the Cummings/Barnard Castle affair for undermining public trust.
She demanded a public inquiry back in June 2020, saying:

“It isn’t about trying to be wise after the event. It’s about genuinely saying what can we learn from countries like South Korea, Germany, New Zealand, Australia that have done so much better than us? And why is it that they have been so successful and here in Britain we have got things so badly wrong?

I’m afraid when you have a response from Government that’s about constantly trying to massage the numbers, constantly saying ‘everything’s fine’ and that you’re proud of your record, that doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

Head to head with Sajid Javid, ex banker…who would you back?

And the sharp, articulate and candid Anna Soubry, former MP for Broxtowe, who quit the government over Brexit to campaign for a confirmatory vote and now heads the Change Party.

Would these individuals not have been safer, more honourable guardians of our democracy and our reputation on the world stage?

And what of the remaining rebels, for completeness’ sake?

Greg Clark (whip restored). Chair of the Science and Technology committees. Gave Hancock and Cummings a bit of a grilling recently.

Sam Gyimah
, gone back to investment banking.

Antoinette Sandbach, gone.

Stephen Hammond, whip restored.

Margot James, gone. Described Cummings as a “deeply malevolent force” and a destroyer and breaker.

Richard Harrington, gone.

Guto Bebb, gone: “The word of the prime minister is not something I accept”.

Caroline Nokes, whip restored. Critical of government’s inhuman approach to immigration and accused Patel of forgetting the lessons of Windrush.

Ed Vaizey, ennobled; may re-emerge as a much more palatable alternative (not hard!) to Paul Dacre as chair of OFCOM. Critical of government’s attacks on so-called woke culture.

“I’m very concerned by the direction of travel of the government’s ‘anti-woke’ agenda. It’s one thing to have a bit of fun to feed the tabloids, quite another to start issuing directions to arm’s length bodies. It is a serious breach of the arm’s length principle, an attack on their independence and scholarship, and hugely damaging to morale at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It will have damaging long-term consequences if what were once curatorial decisions are taken over by ministers.”

Vaizey or Dowden? No brainer.

Steve Brine, whip restored.

Anne Milton, gone.

Richard Benyon, ennobled.

Will ‘one-nation’, centre-ground Conservative voters read this and question the direction of travel for their party? Will they see the corruption, the cronyism, the Russian connections, the utter near-criminally negligent handling of Covid-19 and the endless tsunami of lies and think “Oh my. What have we done?”

A progressive alliance and electoral reform are the only things that will save our democracy now. Moderate Conservatives, stranded and homeless, may then get the chance to vote for people of the calibre of Stewart and Grieve rather than BluKIP.