Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.
I have to admit to feeling very torn over the whip being withdrawn from 21 Conservative MPs over their rebellion this week.
On the one hand, they all knew the consequences of what they were doing. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t had due warning that the vote was considered a vote of confidence. So the Prime Minister and Chief Whip were quite within their rights to withdraw the whip from them, thereby preventing all of the 21 from standing as a Conservative candidate in any immediate election.
And yet, and yet. I feel a profound sense unease at this move, just as I did in 1992 when John Major did the same thing to the Maastricht rebels. They were seen by many, albeit unfairly – and especially in the media – as the mad, the bad and the sad.
The current rebels are people of immense stature and, although they differ from me on our views of Brexit, I regard each and every one of them as a proper Conservative. Whatever the proprieties are of withdrawing the whip, sometimes in politics you have to be pragmatic. You need to think how ordinary voters will view these things. It’s a long-established political fact that the electorate hates divided parties.
Part of the problem here is that some people seem to have drunk their own kool-aid. I’ve said before that I think the first month of Boris Johnson’s premiership was a success. He picked the Conservative Party up off the floor, provided a clear direction of travel and exuded some much needed positivity and optimism.
But with success comes the danger of hubris. No politician or adviser is without fallibility and I’m afraid there are one or two people in Downing Street who seem to think they are beyond questioning. The events this week have shown how wrong they are.
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A lot has been said about Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to accede to the Prime Minister’s request for a general election, so I won’t add to it much here except to say this: surely the best way to avoid a No Deal Brexit, if that is really his aim, would be for him to become Prime Minister – and the only way that can happen is for him to win a general election? Then he can make sure it doesn’t happen. But there’s the rub. Labour knows it’s very unlikely that he could win it. Democracy, eh?
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Back in 2009 I was in the final of the Bracknell selection. There were seven of us taking part – an unusually large number. I really felt I had a good chance, although I knew that the local GP, Phillip Lee, was always going to be the favourite.
On the day of the open primary, one by one those seven candidates fell by the wayside. It was a bit like X Factor. I got down to the final three, against Lee and Stewart. At that point, I realised the game was probably up. If they wanted to play safe, they’d go for Philip. If they wanted to take a risk, they’d go for Rory – and I fell somewhere between the two.
My rationale was that they wouldn’t want a compromise candidate; they’d want the real thing. I was right. I won’t pretend I wasn’t gutted, because I was. Bracknell was the perfect constituency for me, I thought, and I felt a connection.
Scroll forward ten years and Bracknell are about to select a new candidate. On Tuesday I interviewed the Chairman of Bracknell Conservatives to get his reaction to Lee’s defection. He was very gentlemanly, and resisted the opportunity to stick the knife in, but it’s clear that this move has been coming for some time. Lee’s done quite a bit of public agonising over the last year so the reaction, rather than surprise, was a bit of shoulder-shrugging.
The point is: Lee is no more a Liberal Democrat than I am. His views on Brexit may partially coincide with theirs, but on virtually everything else he’s a true blue Tory. I wonder how comfortable he will feel with them. No more comfortable than Chuka Ummuna, I imagine.
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So far this week, I’ve been linked with standing in Bracknell, Broadland and Tunbridge Wells – given that in addition to Philip Lee’s defection, my good friend Keith Simpson has announced he’s standing down in Broadland, where I have a house, and Greg Clark in Tunbridge Wells (where I live) has had the whip removed.
Were I 47, I might be tempted, but I’m not. I’m 57, and I very much enjoy my current life. Yes, there’s a part of me that thinks in this dire situation that all good (wo)men and true should come to the aid of the country, but in the end, self-knowledge is a wonderful thing. And I am far better equipped to resist temptation at 57 than I was when I was younger.
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I can only imagine the agonies that Jo Johnson has been through in making his decision to resign as a minister and quit as an MP. There will be obvious comparisons with the Miliband brothers, I suppose. It is rumoured that Jo didn’t inform his brother what he was intending to do. On the face of it, you’d have to say that appears incredibly ruthless, if correct. Families, eh?