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20 February 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 2:56am

How do the Independent Group MPs feel about austerity?

Are there already splits over cuts?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Anna Soubry MP, now a member of Parliament’s Independent Group of Labour and Tory defectors, has praised austerity.

The former Tory minister said the coalition government, which kicked off David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity programme, “did a marvellous job” and the cuts to public services were “absolutely necessary at the time”.

“I think the things we did to the economy were absolutely necessary at the time. I don’t have a problem with that,” she told the press conference, where she and two Tory colleagues announced their split from the party. She added that the country was at risk of running a “dangerous deficit” without taking that action.

While Soubry’s colleague Heidi Allen struck a different note on austerity at the same event – saying her former party had been blind to the “suffering endured by the most vulnerable in society; suffering which we have deepened” – all three Tory defectors have voted in favour of austerity measures.

Soubry has consistently voted for cutting welfare spending and against welfare rises. Allen, despite her recent “anti-austerity tour”, has voted to reduce benefits for the majority of the time. Their colleague joining them on the opposition benches, Sarah Wollaston, has also consistently voted to cut welfare spending and against welfare rises.

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Yes, they may be long-time critics of this Tory leadership, and classed as “compassionate Conservatives”, but their voting records on economic policy don’t separate them a great deal from their government colleagues.

Soubry’s new ex-Labour colleagues watched on as she spoke at the press conference. It was a visual representation of the policy divisions the group will face – repeated in the Commons after the three Conservative defectors took their seats on the opposition benches while Theresa May condemned Labour’s government record and defended her party’s economic policies.

A Labour party source has already used these pro-austerity credentials to attack the Independent Group, telling the Independent’s Ashley Cowburn: “It didn’t take long for the Independent Group to show their hand and reveal they stand for privatisation, austerity and tax cuts for the rich.”

How far will the group’s eight Labour members be able to distance themselves from what the left generally sees as a damaging and ideological economic policy?

While Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie in particular were seen as business-friendly and “centrist” in their economic roles under Ed Miliband (shadow business secretary and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, respectively), the ex-Labour MPs in the group have almost always voted against austerity measures.

Indeed, in an interview following his resignation from Labour with my colleague George, Leslie said, “There are real problems with their [the Tories’] welfare policies, which have had a tin ear to the most vulnerable in society”.

He and his fellow ex-Labour moderates do not sign up to Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto (in the same interview, Leslie decries renationalisation of privatised utilities as “the controlling instinct of the hard left” and “Marxist ideology”, and is sceptical about a 50 per cent top tax rate and abolishing tuition fees). But this doesn’t make them austerity advocates.

How will they square this, then? Could they choose the line that no matter how they approached the cuts back then, they are no longer the right policy for now, as Soubry suggested?

After all, it’s an argument that has traction even among some ministers in this time of “end of austerity” rhetoric from Theresa May and Philip Hammond. The Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd herself has said it’s time the benefits freeze comes to an end, even though she says it was the right thing at the time.

But this line has the downside of being utterly disingenuous, which most people who deliver services or encounter constituents already know. Any local politician and many an MP will tell you that the worst impacts of austerity are only just starting to hit. That policy you’re still happy you supported back then? Well, it’s only just fully being enacted now.

The ex-Labourites in the group know this, even if they have long been labelled “Red Tories” by opponents on the left. They might be accustomed to such insults – but if their new colleagues’ defence of Osborne’s cuts defines them as a group, they will struggle to tempt over fresh recruits from their former party.

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