Dominic Grieve, David Gauke and Anne Milton face a big challenge to keep their seats come 12 December. The trio were among 21 Tory MPs who lost the whip when they backed the Cooper-Letwin bill back in September. Last night, Grieve, Gauke and Milton teamed up with the former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine to hold an event in Grieve's Buckinghamshire constituency of Beaconsfield to rally against the party they once called home.
While the odds might be against them in their bids to retain their seats as independents, the three candidates are optimistic. They embraced their newfound independence, telling voters they could 'make the difference' and generally talking up their ability to surmount their former Tory majorities (each of the candidates previously occupied Tory strongholds, with Grieve now fighting against his old majority of 24,500).
A key part of their strategy is going after Boris Johnson. The candidates spoke passionately about their unionism, arguing that the PM was putting the nation at risk. Grieve told the crowd 'I am a unionist... my father brought me up to be a unionist... the union with Scotland, which I'm afraid is under very direct threat, as well, because of his [Johnson's] folly.'
But is Grieve consistent in his concern for the union? The former Tory MP also backed the idea of a coalition of Remain parties coming together to force through another referendum:
'If we want to deliver a second referendum we will need a government of national unity'.
This was said without any recognition of the fact that such a coalition would have to involve the SNP, a party that would likely insist on a second independence referendum as a condition for support. Brexiting, in fact, makes it harder for Scotland to leave the UK. Accession to the EU is conditional on the unanimous agreement of the member states. Spain has clearly and repeatedly said they would block Scotland's entry as it would bolster the Catalan bid for independence at home. The notion that, at least in the immediate term, it is Remain that presents a greater threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom was not even acknowledged, let alone addressed.
Both Grieve and Gauke also railed against the 'extremism' they saw taking over society. Gauke, who is fighting for his seat of nearby South West Hertfordshire (Tory majority of 19,500), said 'we are seeing the Conservative party transform itself into a socially conservative populist party'. And yet the assembled Tory rebels invoked a similar strategy to the one they claimed to deplore.
Lord Heseltine told the crowd:
'We are the democracy of this country. We have to ask: who owns the newspapers that we read? Who appoints the editors who determine the lines they take? Who actually writes the headlines?'
This sort of conspiratorialism is straight out of the populist playbook. Heseltine continued down this road. He compared the Brexit situation to that of Hitler, to Oswald Mosley and to Enoch Powell. He also blamed the crash of 2008, saying:
'If you are going to have a hunger for change, you have got to be able to point to something that you need to change and, above all else, you need a villain. It was actually much the same in the 1930s when Mosley marched against the Jews in the East End of London. It was the same arguments and Hitler used the same arguments and it was all the same stuff in the 1930s. It was Enoch Powell in the 1960s who made that infamous speech about 'The Rivers of Blood...'
'The Trump argument and the Trump support in America is identical to the Brexit support in this country. There, the enemy is Mexico and the people crossing the border from South America. Here, it is the foreigner, the Europeans, all of that. So it is the same story.'
Heseltine was clearly trying to fire up activists by claiming the establishment and the media are against them. Their fight, he suggested, is a battle against extremism. Yet such exaggeration might be part of the problem.
The evening came to an end with Heseltine extolling the sacrifices each of the candidates had made by giving up a Tory safe seat to stand by their principles. Admirable indeed, although this is surely something we would expect of all politicians. The conservative independents' commitment to political moderation appears to have been undermined by the fanaticism of their opposition to Brexit.