“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
The Conservative Party has tended to quietly evolve. Revolutionary upheaval is not our natural disposition. Yet if you survey the tribe, an astonishing number of faces have changed in a very short time.
Listening to the Today programme, or watching Newsnight, you might not have noticed. The same voices are still listened to, with greater deference than ever. Lord Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Sir Nicholas Soames. The “senior Tories”, the “Party grandees”. There to explain it all to us. But though they still take the airwaves, they are no longer a power in the land. All they can do is grumble at the way the wisdom they offer has been regarded as expendable. They still pontificate but the power has gone. It’s like listening to Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old men from The Muppets.
It was only three months ago, that Clarke was hoping to become caretaker Prime Minister under a Government of National Unity. It was suggested that an another choice was John Bercow. He’s gone too. Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems leader, was involved in the negotiations. She’s out. Admittedly, it never quite seemed plausible. For some time, one had adjusted to Clarke being the grand old man who would lumber up and speak for rather too long with a bit too much nostalgia.
With some of the other departures it has been a struggle to keep up.
Rory Stewart? It was only in June that he was the International Development Secretary – and standing to become Conservative leader and our new Prime Minister. Now he is out of Parliament and out of the Party. One is reminded of Michael Foot’s comment of David Steel:
“He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.”
It was only five months ago that Philip Hammond was Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the great offices of state. He would patiently tell us all why it would be impossible for Boris Johnson to get a new Brexit deal. The interviewers would nod along appreciatively to this sage Eyeore – whose defeatism was regarded as so deeply profound. But this nattering nabob of negativism has been cast out. The discredited predictions forgotten. To recover from the depression, the electors of Runnymede and Weybridge are now represented by a dashing young psychiatrist called Ben Spencer.
But it’s not just Stewart and Hammond. Until September, we had Amber Rudd as Work and Pensions Secretary. Earlier she had been Home Secretary. Some tipped her for the leadership. Then she resigned from the Cabinet and announced she was going to stand as an independent candidate at the General Election. The media reported it as a devastating blow to Johnson. Nothing much more came of it.
Sir David Lidington was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and until July the “de facto Deputy Prime Minister.” He has retired. David Gauke was the Justice Secretary until he left the Cabinet at the same time, then had the Whip withdrawn. Now he has lost his seat after standing as an independent.
There are waves involved. We had Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, and Anna Soubry, who defected to the Independent Group, also known as Change UK. Allen joined the Lib Dems but stood down. Wollaston joined the Lib Dems and fought her seat for them. Soubry stuck with Change UK and fought her seat again; the Lib Dems did not stand against her. They are all out.
Then we had the Whip withdrawn from 21 Conservative MPs for supporting the Benn Bill intended to undermine Brexit. Some had the Whip restored and four of them – Caroline Nokes, Stephen Hammond, Greg Clark and Steve Brine – are back as Conservative MPs and have pledged to vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. But the other 17 are all out. Some had had the Whip restored but decided to stand down anyway, such as Richard Harrington and Margot James. Dominic Grieve and Anne Milton stood as independents, Antoinette Sandbach and Sam Gyimah as Lib Dems – they all lost.
Other bitter opponents of Johnson – such as Sir Alan Duncan – stood down without rebelling.
During the election campaign, we had Sir John Major, a former Prime Minister, advising people not to vote Conservative. It had plenty of publicity but the polls didn’t particularly budge. It really means that Sir John has used up his political capital. Any future efforts by him to undermine the Conservatives will be met with a shrug due to their predictability – a bit like the sulking from Sir Edward Heath during the Thatcher era.
What is the upshot? It means that the talk of the “new Conservatism” is valid in the flesh and blood. It is not just the same old gang reading an updated script. It also means that Johnson is in an even stronger position than his Parliamentary majority implies. Conservative MPs are more united than it would have possible to imagine a few months ago. Even those who are not Johnson enthusaists are, at least, reconciled to his leadership. It’s not that the Prime Minister will be personally gleeful about all the departures. They included several of his friends (even his own brother). Beyond Brexit some could still be allies. Could Ed Vaizey be given a nice job on an arts Quango? What about a peerage for Sir Oliver Letwin and some problem-solving brief to sort out social care? Fine. But the composition of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons does matter. Next week it will be very different from what has gone before.
The implications of this remarkable clearout remains to be seen. But what we already know is that its scale and speed is unprecedented.