Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry resigned the whip today and joined the Independent Group, which already numbered eight former Labour MPs.
All three support a second Brexit referendum and were among the 11 Conservative rebels in December 2017 who voted in favour of parliament having a vote on the final deal. In their joint resignation letter today they said the Conservative party has “increasingly abandoned its principles and values with a shift to the right of British politics.” They wrote that the final straw has been the government’s disastrous handling of Brexit.
Their decision is a significant boon to the Independent Group—but who are they, and what will they bring to it?
A GP by training, Wollaston became MP for Totnes in 2010 after Anthony Steen resigned over the expenses scandal. The Tories made the radical decision to hold an open primary, inviting every voter in the constituency to select their candidate via a postal ballot.
Wollaston was a Brexiteer in the runup to the 2016 referendum, but was incensed by the campaign’s pledge to spend an extra £350 million per week on the NHS, branding it “deliberately misleading.” She subsequently switched to Remain and became a high-profile backer of a second referendum. Wollaston told the British Medical Journal in 2013 that she had declined the offer of a PPS role and a bill committee post because they would have prevented her from criticising government policy. She has rebelled to vote against military intervention in Syria and in favour of votes at 16, but has otherwise tended to vote in line with other Tory MPs, including on welfare and benefits.
In recent months Arron Banks’s Leave.EU campaign has targeted social media messages to Wollaston’s constituents, urging them to join the local Conservative association so as to deselect her. Earlier this week, she tweeted that “BLUKIP has been busy taking over the Tory Party alongside the ERG. Soon there will be nothing left at all to appeal to moderate centre ground voters.”
It’s unclear to many people why Heidi Allen, who was elected the MP for South Cambridgeshire in 2015, stood under the Tory banner at all. She used her maiden speech to criticise George Osborne’s policies and said that cutting tax credits was a “betrayal of Tory values”, although she had previously voted for that legislation. In an interview a few months later she said that being an independent would have suited her better. Since then she has frequently used her platform to criticise Tory austerity, and earlier this year launched an inquiry into chronic poverty with Frank Field.
Allen’s local association made an attempt to deselect her ahead of the 2017 election, but Theresa May intervened to stop proceedings. Just as the local party was gearing up to try again this year, Allen jumped before she was pushed. In a press briefing after her resignation, she blamed the Conservative government for deepening the suffering of benefits claimants. “I want to be part of something better, a party that people vote for because they want to, not because they feel they have to,” she said.
A former television presenter and barrister, Soubry was another of the 2010 intake under Cameron’s premiership, winning Broxtowe from Labour’s Nick Palmer. She is the only MP of the three defectors to represent a marginal seat, which she held in 2017 with just 800 votes. Soubry is best known as one of the faces of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum. She threatened in December to resign the whip and vote no confidence in the government if no deal became its policy, and has been subjected to verbal harassment and abuse from protesters for her Brexit position.
Unlike Wollaston or Allen, Soubry has in the past been on the government payroll, having been minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans in 2013-14. Until recently, her Twitter bio professed that she was a “life long One Nation Tory,” which she demonstrated when defending George Osborne’s economic record in a press briefing following her resignation today. It is unclear how her views will sit within the Labour-dominated Independent Group in the months ahead. One right-leaning Tory MP says: “Anna is more Tory than me on economics and I always thought our problems were a temporary blip rather than something so fundamental.”