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20 February 2019

Three Tory MPs join the Independent Group

The defections of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen could make or break the new party.

By Patrick Maguire

Three pro-Remain Conservative MPs have quit the party to join the Independent Group, swelling its ranks to 11. 

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – among the most persistent and outspoken backbench critics of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit – said they no longer felt they could “remain in the Party of a Government whose policies and priorities are so firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP”. 

In a letter to Theresa May, the MPs wrote: “Brexit has re-defined the Conservative Party – undoing all the efforts to modernise it. There has been a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line ERG which operates openly as a party within a party, with its own leader, whip and policy.”

The three resignations do not come as a surprise: all had previously said on the record that they would be willing to join a new centrist movement. Soubry has forged an effective cross-party partnership with Chuka Umunna, who quit Labour for the Independent Group on Monday, since the 2016 referendum, while both Wollaston and Allen have campaigned alongside other members of the Gang of Seven for a second referendum. 

Soubry, first elected as MP for the Nottinghamshire marginal of Broxtowe in 2010, is a former defence and business minister. Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, and Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, have both been persistent critics of the government since their elections in 2010 and 2015 respectively.

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Their defections are a boost to the Independent Group both in terms of its representation of the Commons – where it is now level on seats with the Liberal Democrats – and fulfils the aim set out by Umunna at its launch on Monday, where he urged other MPs disenchanted with their party leaderships to join them. They could yet be followed by more: Philip Lee, who quit as a minister to support a second referendum last year, has did not rule out joining in the coming days when asked this morning.

The group also has its first select committee chair in Wollaston, who leads both the Commons Health committee and the powerful Liaison Committee, which questions the prime minister on the work of the government several times a year. Though chairmanships are technically allocated by party, Frank Field, the Birkenhead MP who resigned the Labour whip in September, has retained his role on the Work and Pensions committee since quitting. 

Beyond the immediate term, however, the change in the Independent Group’s political composition is likely to pose serious challenges as it begins the transition to a fully-fledged political party. Though there is internal agreement on a fairly nebulous set of founding principles and the basic analysis that neither Corbynism or Brexit are desirable as ends in themselves, the economic policy that the group might now cohere around is less clear. While Allen has been an outspoken critic of some of the harshest welfare cuts, all three consistently voted for the government’s austerity programme. 

There is also the possibility that the group’s cross-party appeal in the Commons could bring this parliament – and with it their existence as a going concern at Westminster – to a premature end. Defections from the Conservative benches decrease the number of votes Theresa May can count on as a matter of course in a confidence motion. In the event that Jeremy Corbyn tables another, the government’s survival will depend to a large extent on whether Independent Group MPs abstain, as former Labour MPs opposed to the Labour leadership did last month, or vote against the government. If they take the latter course and facilitate a general election, their first electoral experience is likely to have come too soon.

The move also has the potential to pull Theresa May in conflicting directions. Opponents of a no-deal Brexit within government are confident that the emergence of a credible alternative destination for Tory Remainers will convince the prime minister that she must pursue a softer strategy if she is to keep the party together. But with her effective working majority reduced to just eight, the resignations mean May is now dependent on the support of the DUP for survival to an even greater extent than previously.