I never got to know David Cameron that well when he was prime minister. I was a loyal Treasury minister for the entirety of his premiership but, such was his closeness to his chancellor of the exchequer, there was little need for him to deal directly with George Osborne’s junior ministers.
Since then, Cameron and I have exchanged the occasional friendly text, but it came as a pleasant surprise to be invited – albeit it at relatively short notice – to the launch of For the Record, his engaging and revealing autobiography. The event was attended by former members of Team Cameron, family, and friends from politics and the media, with a smattering of MPs. And it was the selection of MPs that was striking. I spotted ten of us there, of whom eight had lost the Conservative whip two weeks previously for voting to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
I don’t think this was a coincidence. Although I did wonder whether, if it had been known in advance that voting for the Benn Act got you an invitation to the book launch, we might have increased the size of the rebellion.
Looking myself up in the index
Copies of the book were available for sale and plenty were shifted. As far as I could see, purchasers showed great restraint in not immediately looking themselves up in the index. I waited until I was on the train home before turning to page 436, which covered a reform to Employer’s National Insurance contributions that I had devised (I did say it was engaging and revealing). I get one other mention when David discusses his plans assuming a Remain vote in the 2016 referendum. “A reshuffle was shaping up in my head. George to the Foreign Office, and Jeremy Hunt or David Gauke to the Treasury.”
At the time, the suggestion that I was under consideration as the next chancellor of the exchequer would have come as a surprise to me and nearly everyone else. In June 2016 I was outside the cabinet and serving as financial secretary to the Treasury; Patrick Jenkin – who held the position of FST under Ted Heath – once told me that the post was equivalent to “Captain of the Second XI”.
Two close friends of David subsequently told me that there was a reasonable chance that I would have made it to No 11 had the referendum result gone the other way. Thankfully, I had no inkling of this at the time – 24 June 2016 was a miserable enough day as it was.
Of course, had I been plucked from obscurity and appointed chancellor, there would have been plenty of criticism that I was George Osborne’s placeman and that he was really in charge of economic policy. The accusation would be that I would do all the grunt work and have to go out and defend all the unpopular measures, while George would make the big decisions and do lots of glamorous travel. I think I could have withstood such an attack. And, even if true, it was an arrangement with which I had been perfectly content for some years.
How prorogation might have worked
The Supreme Court hearings into the prorogation of parliament were absorbing viewing. It replaced the Ashes as required daytime television for those of us adjusting to post-cabinet life (although I confess to following the cricket more closely).
Regardless of the conclusions of the Supreme Court, the government had clearly shot itself in the foot by suspending parliament. By diminishing trust in the government’s intentions, it strengthened the resolve of Conservative rebels, accelerated action and still allowed enough time for the Benn Act to get through parliament.
The tactic might have made sense had the Prorogation Order been made secretly and only announced after parliament had failed to intervene in the first week of September. At which point, parliament would be suspended and would no longer be in a position to stop us crashing out on 31 October. It would have been even more of an outrage but at least it might have been effective.
This might explain the fury within No 10 when the media learned of the plan to suspend parliament. One innocent victim of this fury was Sonia Khan, a Treasury special adviser who was reportedly frogmarched out of Downing Street by armed police officers because Dominic Cummings believed that she had leaked the information.
I don’t know Khan and I don’t know all the details of how the prorogation plan came to be known to the media. But I do know enough to know that she had nothing to do with it.
Populists, anarchists, whatever
In contrast to the kangaroo court in which Khan was convicted, most viewers of the Supreme Court hearings will, I suspect, have come away impressed by the calm common sense and intellectual rigour of the justices. As Lord Chancellor, I got to know most of the senior judiciary reasonably well and never failed to be impressed by their dedication and intellectual capability.
The rule of law and our independent judiciary are great assets for this country but I fear that, as with other institutions, they face increased criticism. It is striking that some of those most enthusiastic to return powers to UK institutions from supranational bodies are also the first to criticise the UK institutions that would exercise those reclaimed powers. Parliament, the civil service and the judiciary all play vital roles in delivering good government, political stability and the protection of rights. We undermine these institutions at our peril.
It is often said that politics is moving from a conflict between left and right and towards a conflict between open and closed. There is something in that. But there is also a conflict between those who defend our institutions and those who seek to undermine them. The latter may be described as many things – populists, anarchists, revolutionaries and so on. They are most assuredly not conservatives.
David Gauke is the independent MP for South West Hertfordshire
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace