Fighting as an independent candidate, David Gauke, a former Conservative justice secretary, won a small army of activists and a viral Twitter following to his pro-European cause.
In the leafy commuter towns north of London in Hertfordshire — where he served as MP for 14 years — that was not enough to get him close to winning, even in a constituency that voted 53.8 per cent to remain in the EU.
All three Tory rebels who stood as independents after being driven out of the party by Prime Minister Boris Johnson (alongside 18 other pro-EU colleagues in September) lost to Conservative newcomers. Their dream of revisiting and reversing Brexit has been shattered by Mr Johnson’s thumping election victory.
“The chance of a second referendum looks dead and buried,” Mr Gauke told the Financial Times at the Hertfordshire South West vote count in Rickmansworth.
His defeat, and those of former attorney-general Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield and ex-minister Anne Milton in Guildford, remove some of the moderate Conservative voices who proved an obstinate block on Mr Johnson’s plans to drive through Brexit “with or without a deal”. All served in constituencies that voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.
The looming question now is whether centrist, “one-nation” Conservatives have been sidelined more broadly at this election.
“It depends how you define one-nation conservatism,” said Mr Gauke. “If it means high levels of public spending, maybe not. If it means having sensible relations with Europe, Boris Johnson’s victory, and his strategy, take us to a very hard Brexit.”
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the Eurosceptics’ decades-long quest to dominate the Conservative party appeared to have been won at these polls.
“I am not sure it is true to say their absence sparks the end of a centrist style of conservatism,” he said of Mr Gauke and his colleagues. “What it does mean is there is no pro-European voice there. These were the last representatives of that dying strain.”
The independent candidates’ failure, he added, showed “how powerful the pull of parties is compared to the strength of any particular individual”.
Mr Gauke described the election as one in which most voters were picking the lesser of two evils rather than enthusiastically backing either main candidate.
“There are two issues that have led to the results we have: the Conservative claims about getting Brexit done which I believe are deeply misleading but nonetheless resonated.”
“Secondly, the country looked at the prospect of Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn with horror.”
Out on the campaign trail on the eve of polling, Mr Gauke was greeted by many well-wishers who said variously they were drawn to his “principled stand” and his “integrity” during a campaign dominated by substanceless slogans and dirty tricks.
If both main parties continued heading to extremes, the case for a new centrist movement in the UK would remain strong, Mr Gauke hoped. The more so after the Liberal Democrats’ dismal showing.
“There is a growing sense, and a lot of people feel it, that some form of political realignment will be necessary,” he said.
His candidacy received the endorsement of a host of other pro-European heavyweights rendered politically homeless by the Tory party’s reincarnation as a redoubt for English nationalists.
They included former prime minister John Major and Ken Clarke, the former Conservative minister and longest serving MP who was expelled alongside Mr Gauke in October after blocking a no-deal Brexit. Former ministers Michael Heseltine and Rory Stewart lined up behind the independents too.
In the event, Gagan Mohindra, a local councillor from nearby Essex selected as Tory candidate in November, won in Hertfordshire South West with 30,327 votes to Mr Gauke’s 15,919.
The newcomer said in his acceptance speech that in different times the two would have been colleagues and he was “sad this would not be the case”. But the results nationally showed a “yearning to get the Brexit paralysis over”.
Mr Gauke acknowledged that many voters had been seduced by the Conservatives’ simple slogan of getting Brexit done. “It’s almost like they know it is not going to work but they want to be willingly misled because it would be nice to end the nightmare,” he said.
But he added that Mr Johnson was now locked into a set of commitments that he would be unable to step away from, with perilous consequences for party and country. Notably this included the manifesto pledge to conclude negotiations on future relations with the EU within the prescribed transition period that ends in 2020.
“It doesn’t seem plausible that a comprehensive trade agreement can be done in that time. So this time next year we will be in another Brexit crisis,” he warned. “A lot of voters will feel let down.”