Will Change UK survive tomorrow’s European elections intact? Listen to Heidi Allen, the party’s interim leader, and it is increasingly difficult to draw that conclusion. She tells Channel 4 News this evening that she offered her resignation after a row over whether the party should endorse tactical voting.
Allen believes the party should encourage Remain voters to back the Liberal Democrats outside of London and South East, where Change UK are polling strongest and thus stand the best chance of picking up MEPs.
Her fear, shared by Sarah Wollaston, is that Change lacks the requisite support to win seats elsewhere and could instead act as a spoiler. She warns: “Putting all the votes in one direction doesn’t always necessarily create the result that you want. If the next party further down in the polls isn’t still big enough to win a seat, you can end up, if you’re not careful, giving more votes to the Brexit parties.”
A majority of Change’s MPs, including fellow ex-Tory defector Anna Soubry, disagree. Allen has accepted the group’s verdict but is making no effort to disguise the fact that a fundamental difference in outlook remains. Indeed, she went as far to implicitly endorse tactical voting anyway. “I am very, very troubled by this,” she says. “This is a massive decision for a party to take. Had it been left to me, I would have absolutely advised tactical voting … I have no doubt that the British public will look at the tactical voting websites and make their own decisions.”
As eve of election announcements from party leaders go, Allen’s is certainly unconventional. But it is not entirely unsurprising. In private, she has always been clear that her strong preference is for cooperation with the Lib Dems. Earlier this week she even admitted that there was every chance that Change might not exist in its current form by the time of the next election. On the basis of current polling it is difficult to disagree. The party will be lucky to return a single MEP to Brussels and, faced with a Liberal Democrat revival none of its leading lights had anticipated, has failed to make serious electoral headway. As Allen herself says, it is a “really, really difficult time”.
Her intervention and its timing reflect the extent to which Change MPs are divided over how to reckon with that fact. Allen’s camp believes some degree of cooperation with the Liberal Democrats has always been unavoidable – and, indeed, desirable. Others, including the party’s campaign manager, Chris Leslie, took the opposite view from the outset. But their belief that they would be able to supplant the Liberal Democrats as the main party of the centre has been very quickly disproved. Against that gloomy backdrop, the conversation Allen initiated this evening was always going to be inevitable at some point – most likely after a set of disappointing European election results.
So why choose to start the argument now? The logic is fairly straightforward. It is now clear that any future talks on cooperation between Change and the Liberal Democrats will be held squarely on the latter’s terms. Embracing tactical voting now might have strengthened Change’s weak hand and there is every chance that in declining to do so, they have made the eventual conversation more difficult. One only needs to look to the fate of the SDP for a glimpse of what happens to parties whose founders are divided on exactly what role it should play in the existing political ecosystem: they split. On current evidence, answering that existential question in one voice won’t be possible for Change UK – especially not if this gambit backfires.