Tories' Brexit outcasts take on Johnson as independents

Alice RITCHIE
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Challenging Boris and 'loving every minute'

Only a few months ago, David Gauke was a Conservative minister. Now he's standing in Britain's upcoming election as an independent, hoping to deprive the party and its prime minister of victory.

"With a majority, Boris Johnson would be able to proceed with a reckless course of action over Brexit," Gauke told AFP he handed out leaflets on a damp afternoon in Tring, a market town in southern England.

Gauke quit as justice minister in July when Johnson became Conservative leader, in protest over his threat to leave the European Union without a deal with Brussels.

Two months later, Johnson expelled him and 20 other MPs from the party for trying to block him in parliament, in the process losing his majority in the House of Commons.

Most of the rebels have since been readmitted or retired, but Gauke and two others are now standing against the Tories in their old constituencies on December 12.

- 'Admire his courage' -

Gauke admits he is in a "very strange" position, but it reflects the turbulence in British politics since the historic 2016 Brexit referendum.

Both the Conservatives and main opposition Labour party have been split over their EU strategy, and several MPs from both have defected to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats in recent months.

Gauke backed a previous exit deal but now believes a new EU referendum is the only way to address the divisive issue -- and hopes the majority of his constituents who opposed Brexit in 2016 will support him.

Having been a Tory MP for 14 years and campaigned for the party in every election since 1987, he has no time for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who also wants a new referendum.

As he pounds the pavements in South West Hertfordshire, a seat he won with 58 percent of the vote in 2017, he emphasises that he would be an independent voice.

One woman swears as she walks past on Tring's High Street, but most people are polite and several stop to chat, despite the drizzle.

"I admire his courage," said Carole Niven, a 66-year-old photographer, fixing a campaign sticker to her coat.

Gauke admits the election is longer hours and more work than before, when he was backed by the Conservative party machine and took his seat for granted.

Today, he is accompanied by just one local volunteer, a member of the local Lib Dems.

"I'm the underdog," he concedes -- polling indicates he will not keep his seat. But he adds: "I'm loving every minute of it!"

- PM 'wholly unsuitable' -

A few miles south, through the glorious autumnal woods of the Chiltern Hills, Gauke's former Tory colleague Dominic Grieve is also upbeat about running as an independent.

"I have no idea if I'll win. But it might just happen," the former attorney general told AFP in the picturesque town of Marlow, on the banks of the River Thames.

The weather here is even worse, the pouring rain dripping off his flat cap and waxed cotton jacket, but Grieve is a man on a mission.

Johnson "is wholly unsuitable to hold high office, and whose character and temperament suggest to me that he is I'm afraid inherently dishonest", he said.

Grieve has led highly successful efforts in parliament to block a "no deal" Brexit, and like Gauke, hopes his call for a second referendum will appeal in his Remain-backing seat.

"I'm not mad. I'm not going to facilitate an extremist left-wing politician taking power," he said, referring to accusations he will let in Corbyn's Labour.

But he wants to "moderate" Johnson's plans for Brexit, which he described as "the worst piece of self-harm this country has engaged in in peacetime".

- 'Traitor to the party' -

Grieve admits many Tory voters are unhappy with him in Beaconsfield, a semi-rural seat which he has held since 1997 and where he won 65 percent of the vote two years ago.

"Traitor. He's a traitor to the party," said Kerrie Kozak, 65, a retired painter and decorator, when asked his thoughts about his local MP.

"I voted to get out (of the EU) and a lot of people voted to get out. It's not democracy if it goes back again."

But Grieve is something of a celebrity for his Brexit campaign in parliament, and his race has a buzz about it that has drawn in volunteers and donations aplenty.

James McKinlay, a 22-year-old university graduate, has come from a neighbouring seat to hand out leaflets.

"The whole idea of putting the country before the party. I think a lot of people like that," he said.