The justice secretary, David Gauke, has survived a vote of no confidence by his local Conservative association, defeating efforts by hard Brexit groups such as Leave.EU to potentially deselect the cabinet minister from his South West Hertfordshire constituency.
The motion accused Gauke of “wilful obstruction” towards implementing the 2016 EU referendum result by opposing a no-deal exit. Although Gauke supported remain in the referendum, he repeatedly voted for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in parliament.
During the meeting – which ended with a vote of 123-61 in Gauke’s favour, with one abstention – the proposer of the motion admitted that he had only joined the Conservative party in February. He called the MP a “Brexit wrecker” with an “extremist anti-leave stance” in his speech.
Replying, the minister said that of the 50 people who pushed for the motion, “the majority have joined in the last 12 months”. He said that “there [was] an attempt to fundamentally change the nature of the Conservative party” taking place.
“Are we morphing into a new party, the Brexit party?” Gauke asked. “If so, I’m not the candidate for you. If I have to change my tune under the threat of deselection, then I’m not going to do that.”
Following the vote, Gauke tweeted: “Tonight, I argued that: We should not allow the Party to be taken over by entryists. We should be a broad church. No deal would be immensely damaging to the UK. I defeated a motion of no confidence 123 to 61. I am grateful to the members of my association for their support.”
The result was applauded by fellow moderate Tories, with Rory Stewart, whose leadership bid Gauke had supported, tweeting that it had been a “tribute to the power of truth, to his association and a tribute above all to David Gauke”.
Former foreign officer minister Alastair Burt said: “Total support for a great colleague, and strong, decent Conservative. Good on his association in standing up to those who may not be singing from a truly Conservative script.”
And Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson tweeted the word “Good” followed by three applause emojis.
The decision by the association is a defeat for the Leave.EU campaign group. On Thursday, it tweeted: “Tomorrow we claim our first Cabinet scalp as DavidGauke is up for deselection in South West Herts”.
After the result, Gauke tweeted mischievously at Leave.EU’s co-founder Aaron Banks, saying “Not so fast there, Aaron”.
Gauke has held the seat since 2005 and was returned at the 2017 election with a majority of 19,550, increasing his personal vote to 35,128, almost 60% of the electorate.
Ministers from both sides of the Brexit divide rallied to support Gauke before the vote took place.
The work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, tweeted: “Tonight’s motion of no confidence in @DavidGauke is ludicrous. Rounding on colleagues in this way is the type of behaviour you’d expect from the hard left.”
She said Gauke had her “full support” and expressed hope that Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt would also back him.
Leave.EU swiftly replied to Rudd, who backed remain, warning that she would face similar moves in her ultra-marginal Hastings constituency, which she holds by just 346 votes.
Hunt did tweet support for his colleague – who is now backing him for the leadership – saying that Gauke “is an outstanding cabinet colleague and we need him to carry on doing such a great job!”
The Brexit minister, James Cleverly, exasperatedly pointed out on Twitter that there was “no deselection mechanism” in the party and complained about having “these Leave.EU stories amplified by the press for months and no Conservative MP has been deselected”.
Cleverly, a former leave-supporting deputy chairman of the Conservatives who has said a no-deal would be “deliverable but [not] easy or effortless”, said Gauke was “a great MP and a huge asset to our party”.
Claire Perry, the energy minister who campaigned to remain, compared those seeking to unseat Gauke to Labour’s left. “It’s a @LeaveEUOfficial “momentum moment”. Their hit list ignores the fact that MPs like David have voted repeatedly for a firm EU exit – if other MPs had joined us rather than indulging in their Brexit fantasies we would be out by now.”
Former ministers Phillip Lee and Dominic Grieve were not as fortunate as Gauke, having lost votes of no confidence by their local associations this year.
On Thursday, Leave.EU claimed: “Activists in East Surrey have now amassed more than the 50 signatures required to initiate deselection proceedings against the former universities minister Sam Gyimah.” He resigned in November 2018 after voting against May’s Brexit deal and subsequently endorsed the holding of a second referendum.