What happened to the Conservative resistance to Boris Johnson? The “Gaukeward squad”, the “Rebel Alliance” of Conservative MPs; the Amber Rudds, David Gaukes, Rory Stewarts and Philip Hammonds, so briefly beloved by parts of the left due to their willingness to oppose no deal, vote against their own government and lose the Conservative whip? After Brexit, and after so many of these MPs decided not to stand again in 2019, is there anything left of the one-time internal opposition to the direction of travel of the Conservative Party under Johnson?
The last bastion of that tendency is Caroline Nokes. She is one of only four of the original 2019 rebels who remains a Conservative MP: “a lonely number”, as she tells me in an interview for the New Statesman, and a cause of “some mistrust” among colleagues. She is by far the most vocal and prominent of the final four and, as a select committee chair, has a platform to scrutinise the government’s agenda on equalities issues – one of the areas where she has the deepest reservations about the direction of the party and its sporadic attempts to stoke the fires of a culture war.
In 2019 the rebellion by Conservatives wasn’t about Remain or Leave (most, if not all, of the rebels voted for Theresa May’s deal). It was about opposition to a no-deal Brexit in particular: alarm at the way in which Johnson and his unpopular senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, were pursuing it, and at what the approach said about the Conservatives more generally.
In 2021 the aim of Nokes and those of her thinking is the same, even if the battleground has shifted. She is pushing for a “moderate”, “centrist”, “solid One Nation” approach in a time when the Conservatives are directing their political energy towards flags, statues and a tougher approach to asylum seekers. She identifies some of the new frontiers – the international aid budget, the ending of the Universal Credit uplift – on which Johnson and his government have bent to the will of the One Nation MPs and their satellites outside of parliament, not least David Cameron himself.
There are new sources of resistance against the direction of Johnson’s Conservative Party, as Nokes acknowledges – not least the pressure coming from newly elected MPs in the “blue wall” who are pushing to ensure the Johnson government delivers meaningfully for their constituencies, which in many cases haven’t had a Conservative MP before. Then there are the calls for the government to ease lockdown restrictions, as well as for a more muscular approach to China from the China Research Group, both coming from across the ideological spectrum of Conservatives. But one of the biggest consistent pressures is from figures like Nokes over departures from the ethos of the Cameron and May years, on areas such as equalities and the UK’s global reputation.
The thing that Nokes is keen to emphasise is that she may be the most vocal MP expressing her opposition both to individual policies and about the overall approach of this government, but she is far from alone. “There’s a massive number of One Nation Tories who still exist, some of them a lot quieter than me, and some of them new. There [are] some really brilliant people who were elected for the first time in 2019, who I would describe as having really moderate views, really sort of centrist, solid One Nation Tories. They’re the future.”
If the views and instincts of the “Rebel Alliance” live on, why does Nokes appear to be the only one stating them? She is one of the rare MPs entirely unconstrained by any hopes of climbing the ministerial ladder under Johnson, as she makes perfectly clear: “I will not serve in a Boris Johnson government,” she says in our interview. There are many others in the Conservative Party who share her concerns and views, but very few are committed to sharing those publicly at the expense of a ministerial career. While the One Nation Conservative grouping in parliament is putting forward policy proposals and sometimes winning them, there was a clear, though perhaps unintentional, message from Nokes towards the end of our interview: “I would commend that to all my back-bench colleagues: stop this endless race up the greasy pole.”