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13 March 2019

Independent Group MP Sarah Wollaston: “Do I think that we cut too much? Yes, I do”

The former Conservative MP on why austerity went too far and why she's proud to be a “Brexit mutineer". 

By Eleni Courea

On 13 July 2016, as Theresa May stood on the steps of No 10 and vowed to tackle British society’s “burning injustices”, Sarah Wollaston thought: “At last!”

Now, less than three years later, the 57-year-old MP for Totnes, Devon, has resigned the Conservative whip to join the Independent Group (TIG) and is unsparing in her criticism of May. “Unfortunately, it does seem to me that that was just empty rhetoric,” Wollaston tells me when we meet in her parliamentary office.

A self-described “moderate, centre-ground, One Nation Tory”, the former GP was drawn to the Conservatives during David Cameron’s leadership, at a time when he was championing Tory modernisation. “He was very actively seeking to diversify the party’s appeal.”

Wollaston was later selected as the Conservative candidate for Totnes in the UK’s first open primary – in which all constituents, rather than just Tory members, could vote. After being elected to parliament in 2010, she led back-bench criticism of the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Bill and rebelled several times against the whip (refusing to join the Tory front bench in order to maintain her freedom).

She was, therefore, a natural candidate to join the newly formed TIG (which consists of two fellow Tory defectors and eight former Labour MPs). Wollaston has long spoken out against tribalism and in favour of working across party lines.

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On the day we meet, she is frustrated by Labour’s efforts to remove former MPs, such as Luciana Berger and Mike Gapes, from House of Commons select committees (“MPs should work in a consensual manner”). Wollaston would rather be drawn into a discussion about data and evidence than conviction and ideology.

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Her answers to policy questions are carefully calibrated. Does she support a 50p top tax rate? “Other forms of taxation that are more equitable.” The abolition of university tuition fees? “A top-up for low-income families.” The renationalisation of the privatised utilities? “It needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, though it would be very expensive.” When asked for her political hero, she replies:  “If I look at figures in the past century who have made the biggest difference in health, I would have to say someone like [Clement] Attlee.”

It’s a different answer from the one you might expect from her fellow TIG MP and Tory defector Anna Soubry, who has praised the Cameron-Clegg coalition as “marvellous” and defended austerity as “necessary at the time”. Wollaston, by contrast, believes that the government’s public spending cuts have been excessive. “We took too much out of prisons, Universal Credit, education, and what it’s shown is that sometimes these can be false economies.”

She notes that the effect of cuts to public health spending are now beginning to emerge: UK life expectancy is falling and childhood obesity is rising. “Do I think that, looking back, we cut too much? Yes, I do.”

Wollaston predicts more defections if either May or Jeremy Corbyn further divide their parties. “If Corbyn rows back on his promise to support a second referendum, or waters it down, I think certainly he’ll lose more [MPs].” Similarly, were May or another Conservative leader to embrace a no-deal Brexit, Wollaston says she doesn’t know “how many colleagues could bring themselves to stay”.

She has made no secret of her dislike of the European Research Group (ERG) of around a hundred right-leaning Conservative MPs. Wollaston, however, believes that the true problem is a Conservative Party membership increasingly unrepresentative of the general population. “Both parties, by their membership, are being taken away from the centre ground, and also becoming much less tolerant.”

She warns that the Conservatives are being captured by people who “share the values of Ukip” and seek to deselect liberal-minded MPs. In Wollaston’s own constituency, the Leave.EU donor Arron Banks has funded a campaign to sign up Brexiteers to her local association in an attempt to oust her.

But for Wollaston, a second Brexit referendum, offering a choice between May’s deal and continued EU membership, is necessary because “valid consent matters”. She cites a clinical example: “You simply cannot go through major surgery based on consent given three years ago.”

Why not trigger a by-election to get voters’ consent for her defection to TIG? Not yet, she says. “Once there is a political party that’s up and running, with a suite of policies, then that’s a different question,” she replies of the grouping, which is not yet a formal party. “But we are some way from that.”

In her office, among vases of yellow tulips, family photos and medical volumes, Wollaston has framed the Daily Telegraph’s incendiary 15 November 2017 front page, on which she is pictured as one of 15 “Brexit mutineers”.

She is unashamed of this mantle. Should the UK leave the EU, she predicts that “people will look back at the bystanders, the people who could see the catastrophe unfolding, and decided to keep their heads below the parapet, to not make life difficult for themselves”. Wollaston is typically soft-spoken as she delivers her final warning. “I think they will share a great deal of culpability.”

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control