For the past three years, a recurring dream has haunted me. In this dream, I find myself walking into the transformed British Parliament, now resembling a magnificent cathedral. As I make my way through the coffered ceilings, Gothic wallpaper, and intricate brass work, I arrive at a marble replica of the debating chamber. To my surprise, I spot Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative member of Parliament, lying on one of the pews dressed in a bishop’s surplice. However, before I can join my colleagues, I am intercepted by a large man in a tailcoat who politely informs me that I no longer belong here and escorts me out.
Initially, I believed that I had come to terms with my break from Britain’s Conservative Party. But these persistent dreams seem to suggest otherwise. The split occurred suddenly four years ago when Boris Johnson took office as prime minister. Overnight, the party’s liberal-centrist values, which I had wholeheartedly supported, were replaced by a right-wing, anti-immigrant platform that thrived on fueling culture wars. Johnson even threatened to expel MPs who opposed his hard-Brexit agenda. In defiance, twenty-one of us, myself included, chose to leave the party. True to his word, we lost our seats, and I was cast aside by the party I had faithfully served for nearly a decade. Former friends turned against me.
Reflecting on Johnson’s legacy, I find myself drawing parallels with Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. I often contemplate the lessons learned from the alienation experienced when a political party transforms from center-right to extremist. Although I have not discovered a definitive solution, I am beginning to believe that conservative populism can be defeated. There is hope for a return to the center ground of democratic politics, where the majority of voters naturally reside.
My political journey began as a member of the Labour Party, but my experiences working in Iraq and Afghanistan disillusioned me with Tony Blair’s technocratic approach. I was drawn to David Cameron’s Tory Party because it seemed to align more closely with my beliefs in tradition, country, the wisdom of local communities, restrained foreign policy, and fiscal prudence. However, due to my background as a civil servant, I perceived entering politics as a practical administrative challenge rather than a game of party politics.
In 2010, I became a Member of Parliament during Cameron’s coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Together, we advocated for localism, supported gay marriage, championed net-zero emissions growth, and increased spending on international development. Even when I held government minister roles in prisons and the environment, where I prioritized reducing incarceration rates and investing in climate change solutions, I did not encounter significant friction within the party.
Certainly, I was aware of the various factions within Toryism. Some members still favored the death penalty, strict immigration controls, and tough crime policies. Margaret Thatcher, the party’s former leader, may have been wary of liberal Tories like me, often calling us “wets.” However, she also included individuals with differing views in her cabinet. Even thirty years after Thatcher’s leadership, the Conservative Party continued to accommodate a range of perspectives.
The unraveling of my party loyalty commenced in October 2018 when I became one of the most vocal supporters of Prime Minister Theresa May’s moderate approach to Brexit, often referred to as a “soft Brexit.” Despite having voted to remain in the European Union, I believed May’s proposal offered a sensible compromise between the deeply divided Remain and Leave factions following the close referendum. Little did I anticipate that my stance would mark me as a careerist and a traitor in the eyes of hardline Brexiteers.
Three fellow MPs, with whom I previously shared a friendly and respectful relationship, launched scathing attacks against me in the press. I was labeled a “laughing stock,” a hypocritical “huckster,” and a “narcissist.” The Daily Telegraph, a staunch supporter of the Tory right, even claimed that soldiers in Afghanistan had given me the nickname “Florence of Belgravia” due to an alleged inclination to compromise with terrorists. The truth, however, was that I had established a nonprofit organization called Turquoise Mountain, which aimed to restore a section of Kabul and empower women and men engaged in traditional crafts.
While the intransigence of the Brexiteer wing of the party could have been overcome, it was the center that ultimately enabled the right’s worst excesses. The problem started at the top. My fellow cabinet ministers had spent two years studying Brexit, understanding the catastrophic consequences of a no-deal scenario. They supported May’s moderate approach. However, some senior figures within the party, fueled by their ambition to become prime minister, began downplaying the risks of a no-deal Brexit to appease the significantly more right-wing party members who would be the electorate in a leadership election. May eventually resigned in May 2019.
At that point, I decided to enter the party’s leadership election. I naively believed that as a centrist candidate, I could prevail over the leading right-wing contender, Boris Johnson. I was convinced that the public saw him as an insubstantial clown with a checkered personal life and questionable financial affairs. MPs also knew that Johnson would employ evasive tactics, half-truths, and outright lies to mobilize his right-wing voter base and further polarize our already divided nation. His Brexit proposals lacked coherence and posed a genuine danger. Yet, I soon discovered that I had underestimated the grip of populism within the party. Johnson managed to garner support even from moderate MPs who viewed him as the best chance for electoral success.
Frustrated, I confronted a Yorkshire MP whom I had previously trusted, asking how they could possibly support Johnson. Their response was disheartening yet revealing. They simply said, “Because he is a winner.” Ignoring the implication that I was a loser, I objected, “But he will make a terrible prime minister.” Their cold reply struck me: “No one will become prime minister if we don’t win the next election.”
As expected, Boris Johnson ascended to the position of prime minister. Many of those who had supported him were rewarded with cabinet positions, where they dutifully defended his blunders, reckless behavior, and increasingly brazen lies during television appearances. Leading up to the vote on his no-deal Brexit proposals in September 2019, around 100 Conservative MPs appeared ready to defy him. In the end, only 21 of us stood firm, among them six cabinet ministers, two former chancellors of the Exchequer, and even Winston Churchill’s own grandson. Alongside opposition-party MPs, we possessed enough votes to block his plan.
Traditionally, voting against one’s party and government had been an acceptable practice in British politics and parliamentary procedures. It served as a safeguard for legislative independence and preserved a diverse range of opinions within Parliament, considering the nation’s electoral system and unwritten constitution. However, the Tory Party in its populist fervor had no regard for constitutional conventions. Johnson responded by expelling us from the Conservative Party caucus, dissolving Parliament, and calling a general election. In one fell swoop, he decreed that only MPs willing to support a potential no-deal Brexit could run as Conservative candidates, ensuring that we rebels could not reclaim our seats in Parliament.
The price we paid for our opposition was exclusion from political life. From the sidelines of this political exile, I witnessed Johnson proceed to abolish the Department for International Development, slash the overseas aid budget, violate international law…
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