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A Tory rebel’s last stand

Dominic Grieve stood firm against Boris Johnson and a no-deal Brexit. His reward was to be expelled from the party his family had served for so long.

On Friday 22 November, the unofficial Brexit Party candidate for Beaconsfield, Adam David Cleary, addressed an audience of a few hundred people in a brightly lit town hall. Four other candidates shared the stage with him. One was Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative attorney general who was standing as an independent. Cleary had hardly begun his speech when he turned to Grieve and said: “And then we have Dominic Grieve, a man rejected from his own party, who spent the entire parliament trying to stop Brexit!”

Applause rippled through the crowd, which was full of Conservative Party members. Many of them had once been Grieve’s supporters and activists. Now they emboldened Cleary, whose voice rose: “–in collusion! Consulting with the French government, consulting with the European Union! Passing the Surrender Act, a despicable piece of legislation!” At this, Grieve broke into open laughter. “Sit down,” someone murmured from the back. Cleary rattled on: “It is appalling!”

On 12 December Dominic Grieve, 63, was, after 22 years as Beaconsfield’s MP, set to lose his seat in the House of Commons.

He had already lost his party. He was one of 21 Conservative MPs who, on 4 September, had the party whip withdrawn over their opposition to a no-deal Brexit. The unprecedented move was directed by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s powerful senior adviser. “MPs like him,” Cummings wrote on his blog on 27 November, naming Grieve alone among the rebels, “should be forced from public life in disgrace for their shameless dishonesty.”

In throwing out Grieve and other former Conservative ministers, from Ken Clarke and David Gauke to Anne Milton, Cummings has struck a decisive blow in a party war over Europe that has raged for six decades. In past battles, the party’s defeated wing – typically its hard-right Eurosceptics – have been kept out of the higher reaches of the cabinet, but have always had the respite of the back benches. Under Cummings, there has been no such refuge for rebel Remain MPs. Every elected Conservative faces a simple choice after the election: conform or be pushed out of the party.

Each Conservative candidate has, in theory, already made that choice. In order to stand, all 635 Conservative candidates agreed to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. On the night of the Beaconsfield hustings, the party’s local candidate, Joy Morrissey, managed to speak of little else. After making light of her American accent – Morrissey, 38, moved to Britain a decade ago – she arrived at the source of her appeal: “Whether you voted Leave or Remain,” she declared, “for me it is about honouring the democratic result of the referendum.”

Her language closely echoed that of Cummings, who wrote in his blog a few days later: “Whether you voted Leave or Remain… respecting democracy is even more important.”

In Beaconsfield, that simple, mandated message has been sharpened by Grieve’s supposed betrayal. “What I would like to see,” said Morrissey at one point, in response to a question on electoral reform, “is people [who are] elected by a party delivering on its manifesto promises”. Scattered cheers clashed with an irritated heckler: “Can you answer the question?” Flustered, Morrissey added a few words.

As the evening went on, one person seemed entirely unaffected by both Morrissey’s words and the disdain of local party members he had known for years. Dominic Grieve did not stir when Morrissey turned Grieve’s praise for his father, who was a Conservative MP, into an attack. “My father,” she said, “wasn’t an MP, he was a vicar. I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve got in life.”

Grieve did not react. He sat, calmly. Where was his anger?

***

A fortnight into Johnson’s premiership, on 7 August, Cummings had summarised the new government’s Brexit policy from his doorstep. “Politicians don’t get to choose which votes they respect,” he told a reporter outside his London home. Parliament, ran the implication, could not stop Brexit. He was asked about Grieve, who had criticised Cummings’s “arrogance” and “ignorance” the previous day; Cummings had reportedly briefed that Johnson could ignore any no-confidence vote against him in the Commons. “Mr Grieve,” Cummings said, as he had got into his government car, “we’ll see what he’s right about.”

Over the next five weeks, Johnson and Cummings pursued a policy of unrelenting belligerence towards parliament.

Cummings briefed the press continually under the guise of a “senior government source”. Stories appeared claiming that Johnson could not only defy parliament but that Remain MPs such as Grieve were being investigated for foreign collusion.

“I started getting leaks from the civil service,” Grieve told me when we met in the days after the Beaconsfield hustings. “People were saying to me, ‘This is really serious, we’re really unhappy, we’re not telling the truth.’” Cummings’s behaviour in early August, Grieve added, “filled me with horror. An extraordinary cascade of disinformation started pouring out from Downing Street.”

Grieve could not remember having met Cummings, though he thought he must have in 2002, when Cummings served briefly as director of strategy to the then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. But Grieve recognises him as a revolutionary. “The way he raises tension and then suddenly drops it away is classic Maoist stuff. You create turmoil in order to achieve your objectives. And then you relax the turmoil and people say, ‘Oh, how wonderful. We’re being offered the way out.’”

When I spoke to Ken Clarke, who was also driven out of the Tory party on 4 September after 49 years as an MP, he saw parallels with how Cummings had operated as the head of Vote Leave in the 2016 European referendum. “The Leave campaign was going in for dog-whistle racism, with Michael Gove going on about millions of Turks – and wink, wink, they’re brown and Muslim – who would come here if we didn’t get out. And what was it Boris was going on about? All this money for the health service. It was the worst style of dishonest campaigning, but it was brilliantly successful.”

Cummings is the reason that Grieve and Clarke are no longer Conservatives, and he continues to run Downing Street. When I spoke to David Gauke, another expelled Tory minister, he was categorical. “[Cummings] is hugely influential, I think the PM defers to him a great deal.”

Very few people, said Clarke, have any idea what is happening inside No 10. “Most of the cabinet haven’t a clue,” he said.

Grieve’s career is the short-end of Cummings’s strategy. He represents everything Cummings wants to purge: the deference to European courts, the respect for the civil service, the adherence to a rules-bound order. Cummings has been calling for “independent courts” since at least 2004, while Grieve was fired as attorney general by David Cameron in 2014 for insisting that Britain remain in the European Court of Human Rights. Cummings has spent his life trying to bend or break the rules, while Grieve was once a barrister specialising in health and safety law. Cummings is the architect of Brexit. Grieve is the reason it hasn’t yet happened.

***

Grieve had, before this year, never fought a competitive election. Beaconsfield is an unassailably Tory seat, and, after winning it easily in 1997, Grieve’s share of the vote rose in every subsequent election. (In 1987 he stood for election in a safe Labour seat and lost.) A marginal race was new to him and he contested this one from the inauspicious confines of an out-of-town business park. The local Conservative association headquarters were, by contrast, in the centre of town. Its office windows looked out on to the affluent and historic high street. Signs were hung for “Joy Morrissey: a new face for Beaconsfield”.

Grieve’s staff was an eclectic group of Lib Dems, former Tories and first-time campaigners such as Breffne, a woman in her 50s. “When I saw Boris Johnson say ‘humbug’” – dismissing the death threats faced by female MPs – “I thought, ‘That’s it.’” she told me. “I was in tears. Any women of a certain age who’s worked in business, and any young girls, will know what being bullied at work is like. It’s not party political, it’s about integrity.”

When I met Grieve, I was struck by his cheerfulness. The propriety of his usual attire – well-measured woollen suit and waistcoat, Barbour jacket – and his image as a severe critic of Tory governments left me expecting a buttoned-up man. Not so – during our two-hour conversation he laughed often, easily and unselfconsciously.

He is, however, inescapably analytical, and can come across as austere. He casually brought up the work of 19th century economist Thomas Malthus on the doorstep of a wavering voter. And when he spoke with another, he was soon telling him, “There’ll be an arbitral tribunal for deciding the FTA [free trade deal] regulations.” As I marvelled at “arbitral”, he continued: “…clause 13.8 – the lawyer speaks – says Northern Ireland won’t be part of it if the EU don’t all agree and the Irish may object”.

Grieve is entirely free of guile. He did not, as he went from door to door, shape-shift to suit each voter, modifying his beliefs to win their support. Instead, perhaps unwisely, he launched into his pitch, which was overlong and technical, even when he avoided clause 13.8. He ran through the election’s two plausible outcomes – a Tory majority or hung parliament – and explained how he would act under each, while questioning Johnson’s ability to “get an FTA”. Johnson’s message, “Get Brexit Done”, is three words long, yet Grieve did not distill his even to a few sentences.


“Conspiracy”: Dominic Grieve speaks at a People’s Vote rally in Westminster. Credit: Guy Bell/Shutterstock

How did Dominic Grieve, the perennial insider, end up on the outside? In early August, despite three years of increasing unease in the party, he was still a Conservative MP. But Cummings’s ascension, and his hold on Johnson, propelled Grieve and other latent rebels towards an inevitable conflict with No 10.

“Boris was resigned to no deal,” said Ken Clarke, when we met in his London home two weeks before the election. “All his efforts were at first put into blaming Europe and blaming parliament.”

Johnson was fighting an undeclared election, and it was clear he would soon call for a real one. If Grieve and other rebels did not acquiesce, they risked losing their seats. But rather than forcing a retreat, Johnson’s strategy succeeded where Remainers had failed for two years: it united the many fragments of parliamentary opposition to Brexit. “The idea of a Remain Alliance is a very flattering description of it,” Clarke said, as he relit a cigar. For a long time, “it was like herding cats… [we were] hopelessly divided into little factions”.

For months, opponents had plotted haphazardly in separate, if overlapping, groups.

“Most of these groups were so sworn to secrecy that they communicated with each other on WhatsApp,” said Clarke, 79, emphasising the unfamiliarity of a service he does not use; he only sent his first text last month. “They’d forget to tell me because they’d forget that I wasn’t on WhatsApp. Nicky Soames used to hold One Nation plotting meetings in the room next door to mine in Portcullis House, but I wouldn’t know the meeting was on and they’d be surprised I hadn’t turned up.”

Grieve led one of the groups, and Clarke attended his meetings more regularly than any others. Grieve would preside, but over time he became “ever more enthusiastically a People’s Vote man” Clarke said, “which I did not agree with. Nor, I think, did most of the people in his group.”

When I spoke to Nick Boles, another conspirator and departing former Conservative MP, he agreed. Grieve, he said, had become “very anti-Brexit” by the spring of 2018.

He and Grieve did not, Boles said, have “a particularly close relationship… He’s very lawyerly and does rather like to hold forth.” But Boles greatly admired his ability to “play in the team very well”. Boles added, though, that there was no single team and no one aim – until the imminent threat of Johnson’s no deal.

After months exploring “naive” ideas, according to Boles, and enduring meetings that Clarke thought “went round in circles”, rebel MPs took control of the parliamentary timetable, with the help of the Speaker. Boles credits Jacob Rees-Mogg with inadvertently inspiring him to look into standing orders and thus bring a bill to the floor of the House. “Oliver [Letwin] and I began exploring that together, very much in consultation with Dominic [Grieve].”

On 3 September, less than a month after Cummings had scorned Grieve’s plans from his doorstep, the Commons passed the Benn Act and blocked no deal. The rebellion had many leaders, but Grieve was its first. It was his amendment in December 2017 that had won parliament an initial meaningful vote on Brexit. The Daily Mail put him on its front page alongside ten other Tory rebels, including Clarke, with the headline “PROUD OF YOURSELVES?” Six months later Grieve was back on the front page, for the “conspiracy” of meeting with leaders of the People’s Vote campaign. All the ire of the Tory right focused itself on him.

“The striking thing about Dominic,” said David Gauke, “is he showed tremendous courage over a sustained period of time. A lot of colleagues have found the pressures of taking a stand and rebelling to be very wearing. Dominic has shown the stamina to do that over years.”

In rebelling against the Conservative Party, Grieve has done more than challenge the leader of the day; he has rejected the identity of a lifetime. His father, Percy, became a Tory MP in 1964, when Grieve was eight, and served for 19 years. As a pupil at Westminster School in the early 1970s, Grieve would attend debates in parliament. He met “Ted”, as he calls former prime minister Edward Heath, and “can still see where it [the meeting] took place, just outside Fortnum & Mason”. The young Grieve ran the Conservative Association at Oxford, and at 26, became a councillor in Hammersmith, where his father Percy ran the local association for a dozen years after retiring as an MP.

Percy Grieve died in 1998, a year after he saw his son, to Percy’s great pride, enter parliament. How, I asked Grieve, would his father feel if he were alive now? “He would be very pained to see that I and the Conservative Party had parted company. But then he would be extremely pained to see what the Conservative Party was doing to itself.” Would he understand? “Oh,” said Grieve, “I think he’d understand perfectly.”

Percy Grieve was not born a Tory – he chose to become one. His father had been killed at Ypres, during the First World War, before Percy was born, and a “dysfunctional” childhood left him, said Dominic of his father, “rather outside the club” as an MP. He had not been to public school, and spent years hoping to become a minister. Percy made sure Dominic knew the codes of the party in a way he had not. His son followed his lead, becoming first a QC, and eventually an MP.

By rebelling, Grieve has charted an entirely different course. He credits his father as “unquestionably my biggest influence”, and his view on Europe can be traced back to him. In 1967 Percy Grieve spoke in the Commons debate on Britain joining the EEC, the precursor to the EU. The bid failed, but Percy backed it. His case was partly economic – “in a modern world, one needs a great market to develop the great industries” – but he did not cede the idea of sovereignty to the Tory imperial right. “It is said that laws will be made for us without our having a voice in them. That is nonsense… What [the EU’s] institutions do for Europe they will do with our participation.”

The modern Brexiteer hope of a US-UK trade deal is not new. And it must still answer the question posed by the elder Grieve in 1967: “If we go into Europe,” he said, “we go in… as one of the great states… If we go into an Atlantic Community, can it be as anything other than the 51st state?”

Percy did not have an unerringly positive view of Europe. Neither does his son. The elder Grieve was wary of immigration. He worried about “the effect it was having on social cohesion”, his son told me. Grieve himself has voiced similar concerns. In 2008 he noted the “cultural despair” felt by many Britons who thought they were being told “your cultural background isn’t really very important, or it’s flawed”. A decade later, he said that Brexit “can be traced directly to levels of migration… I think we ignore that at our peril.”

But the EU’s imperfections did not mean we should leave the bloc. Grieve, said David Gauke, “has the confidence to follow his ideas”, and the referendum only temporarily suppressed them. In February 2017, Grieve had voted for the time-tabling of Article 50; Ken Clarke was the sole Tory to vote against it. But Grieve soon began to agitate. “I had to ask myself, is your drive to keep this argument going because you think you can take it to a better destination, or you’re just angry with the people who won in 2016?”

***

The Benn Act was the better destination that Grieve believed in. It saved Britain from a shock exit. It also trapped Boris Johnson. And it was highly unlikely to have figured in Cummings’s game-plan. “Suddenly,” as Ken Clarke put it, “the tactics changed”, and it may not have been Cummings who changed them.

Johnson, said Clarke, was now “desperate for a deal. He’d go for anything. That’s why in the end there was no proper negotiating. It was all settled by a one-to-one meeting between him and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar [held in Cheshire 10 October]. An hour and a half. On their own. They shook hands and did the deal.”

“Now Varadkar was able to do that,” Clarke continued, “confident the [EU] 28 would be all right, because what he shook hands on was what the EU had already agreed to offer Theresa May 12 or 18 months before. It was quite obvious from what Johnson said afterwards that he hadn’t understood what he was agreeing to. He had not recognised it as the original EU proposal. He still refuses to accept that he signed up to a customs union down the Irish Sea.”

Johnson’s deal was not a breakthrough after years of torturous negotiations – it was a capitulation. With a deal in hand, No 10 pushed for an election. With no deal averted, the opposition limply gave way. Grieve and the rebels had won, but what kind of victory was it? Cummings, whatever his missteps, had been handed the general election he wanted, and was reunifying the Leave vote. The rebels, Clarke pointed out, had only managed to do the “most unpopular thing we could do: a further extension”.

The 21 soon scattered in all directions. They were, said Gauke, “different people with different aims”. Eleven MPs retired. Four retook the whip and stood as Conservative candidates. Two left for the Lib Dems, and one, Rory Stewart, is running for mayor of London. That left only three – Grieve, Gauke and Anne Milton, another former Tory minister – to fight on as independents. “I just thought, no way,” said Grieve, “I’m not going to shove off like that.”

***

Grieve made his pitch: “All we can do, in an imperfect world, is to take sensible measures,” he told the Beaconsfield hustings. We need, he continued, “a sense of reality rather than fantasy”. His points were logical. He is, Gauke told me, “led by intellect”. But what hope does logic have, I asked Grieve after the hustings, in a fight with emotion?

“Well,” he said, “if you are going to apply some rationality, it shouldn’t prevent you from also applying some emotion too – if it is the emotion of rationality!”

In any relationship, Grieve continued, there has to be some “emotional input”. This is not a language he naturally speaks. How, I asked, does one counteract the simple allure of Cummings’s messages?

“I may not,” he conceded, “be the best person to do it, but you’ve got to try to cut through and expose them for what they are.”

Grieve had spent large parts of the hustings being attacked – explicitly by the Brexit Party candidate, implicitly by the equally pro-Brexit Tory. And yet he scarcely reacted. Why? “Anger is something I tried to control a long time ago. I very rarely get angry with anybody. Anger contributes very, very little to achieving anything. I learned that lesson as a teenager, I think, when I was very angry because my sister was unwell and everything was going wrong around me.”

When Grieve was a teenager, his sister, who was a few years older than him, developed anorexia. “It dogged her for the rest of her life. She died at 34. She would have these peaks and troughs. An anorexic in the family is quite disruptive.”

Grieve, then at Westminster School, became, for a while, a wayward pupil. “I’ve seen quite a lot of trauma. I don’t wish to exaggerate – I’ve had a very comfortable life in a way – but I would describe some of it as quite painful.

“I think it made me quite resilient.” Grieve has not spoken publicly of his sister’s influence. But “you are steeled by an event like that,” he told me. “People sometimes say the past two years must have been very traumatic, parting company with the party and death threats and people writing nasty emails. None of that is entirely pleasant, but it’s a bit water off a duck’s back… You have to cope with your anger and you have to channel it.”

***

Winston Churchill was the last leader to preside over the Conservatives before the split between the imperial and European wings of the party emerged. The divide was created when Harold Macmillan applied for EEC membership in 1961 and has not yet disappeared. A young Ken Clarke was inspired to join the Tory party by Macmillan’s belief in Europe. He has been thrown out for clinging to it.

Grieve has no memory of Macmillan, but as a young boy he walked with his father past Churchill lying in state. Clarke saw Churchill once, shortly before his death. He watched one afternoon as the former prime minister and wartime leader, after more than 60 years as an MP, rose and left the chamber, “with everybody’s eyes glued on the old man going out”. After 49 years Clarke has now walked out of the chamber for the last time, and Grieve is unlikely to return. Everybody’s eyes are elsewhere.

In 1780 Edmund Burke faced the voters in his seat of Bristol. Two years earlier he had defied their wishes and supported loosening trade restrictions with Ireland. There should be, Burke argued, no meaningful border in the Irish Sea. If he lost the election, he wrote, it would “stand on record [as] an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist… his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.

Burke lost his seat. In an era of pocket boroughs, he was handed another. He survived to warn against the French Revolution from the floor of the House. He is buried in Beaconsfield.

In the closing moments of the Beaconsfield hustings, Grieve spoke out of turn for the first time. Joy Morrissey, the Tory candidate, was wrapping up her case: “It is about honouring the will of the people! It is time to move on, it is time to get our trade negotiated, to move forward, to focus on the issues that matter.”

“To take us,” Grieve muttered into his microphone, as the applause began for Morrissey, “over the edge of the cliff.”

Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman and was the editor of election website May2015. He tweets at @harrytlambert.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special