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David Gauke, Conservative (May 2005 – Sept 2019) and Independent (Sept – Dec 2019) MP for South West Hertfordshire
“I can definitely be described as a Centrist Dad figure these days,” former Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke says. “In many respects, I still consider myself a conservative, even if I’m not a member, or particularly an enthusiast for the modern Conservative Party.”
Since losing the Conservative whip in September 2019, then running as an independent candidate in his South West Hertfordshire constituency that December (he came second with 26 per cent of the vote), Gauke has been publicly critical of Johnsonian-style Toryism and the government, believing the party is drifting towards populism and nationalism.
He has found himself “politically homeless”. Although he believes the Liberal Democrats should be aiming for voters like him, he is not yet fully comfortable with Sir Ed Davey’s party either, saying it should be stronger on pro-business messaging and relationships with the European Union. “Where the Liberal Democrats are happiest is when they are a ‘none of the above’ protest party. But voters like me, and many others who genuinely voted Conservative, want to vote for a party of government. They don’t want to vote for a protest party,” he says.
Probably a lot of ex-ministers felt they just wanted to be able to do something
Now writing regular columns in the New Statesman and ConservativeHome, working as head of policy at his former law firm Macfarlanes and a day a week advising PR firm Instinctif Partners, Gauke is still involved in the world of politics. However, there are many things he misses about Parliament – including the jerk chicken in the Debate canteen. Having been a minister for nine of his 14 years in Westminster, he found himself particularly missing government when Covid hit. “People would say, ‘I bet you’re glad to be out of it’. That was actually the point where I most wanted to be back in the middle of things, because that’s the point where you think you can make a difference, where your experience and skills can be of most use, and where things really matter. Probably a lot of ex-ministers felt they just wanted to be able to do something.”
Gauke’s proudest moments are from his seven years in the Treasury, even if they were “terribly prosaic,” and low-profile. “There were some reforms to the way that the PAYE system operated, bringing in real time information. You can’t be more technocratic and unglamorous than that; but for those reforms, which I certainly drove, we wouldn’t have been able to introduce the furlough scheme the way we have. I wasn’t introducing [them] for that reason, but they were good and valuable reforms that have enabled others to go on and implement a very good policy.”
As a minister, Gauke was known for his calm and steady media performances – so what does he make of the phrase “uncork the Gauke”?
“I quite liked it. Sometimes people said ‘oh George [Osborne] was so unfair to you, he dropped you into all these difficult situations’. It couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re a junior minister wanting to make an impression, the opportunity to go out, especially when things are difficult, and acquire a reputation of being able to deal with difficult interviews or a rowdy House of Commons is a real feather in your cap and so I always took it as a compliment. I’ve heard a lot worse.”
While he isn’t necessarily proud of the action that effectively ended his political career – being one of 21 Tory MPs who lost the whip for backing the Benn Act during the Brexit battles in September 2019 – he went into it with his “eyes wide open”. “I think had 21 of us not taken action in September 2019… we would have ended up with a no deal Brexit at that point. [The country] would have been plunged into a huge crisis. Although the outcome we’ve got to is far from good, it could have been much worse. Taking that action at that point was the right decision.”
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