Honeymoon period for Independents as main parties regroup

It remains to be seen whether the Labour and Tory defectors have a long-term future

It is possible for Downing Street to argue that the defection of three Conservative MPs changes very little. The quitters, after all, are well-established backbench rebels, independent-minded MPs highly unlikely to support Theresa May over Brexit.

Anna Soubry has been outspoken for years about the prime minister’s embrace of Brexit and the rightward drift in the Tory party. Last summer she claimed that May was in the grip of the “forces of darkness”, meaning the anti-European ERG.

Neither of the other two is considered a tribal Tory. Sarah Wollaston was selected in a public primary in Totnes in 2009 – having joined the party three years earlier – and has been vigorously campaigning for a second referendum for months.

Heidi Allen used her maiden speech in 2015 to attack George Osborne over cuts to tax credits. “Even David Cameron couldn’t get her to support him,” one Conservative ruefully observed on Wednesday.

But defections matter at Westminster, not least because they happen so rarely, particularly from the Tories (after all, only one Conservative, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, quit the party to join the Social Democratic party in 1981). They represent a moment where the public pays attention to the political process, where opinions can be reset.

It is far too soon to trust early opinion polls such as YouGov’s that show the Independent Group ahead of the Lib Dems at as high as 14%. But it has become an option on the pollsters’ question paper, and its spokespeople will have high exposure in the media and in parliament in the coming days.

And with the three Tories joining the eight Labour MPs, the story of the Independent Group is no longer simply an argument about Jeremy Corbyn or antisemitism; it is about May’s leadership of the Conservative party and the country.

Soubry might not have been saying anything new to those who follow her closely when she said at this Wednesday’s press conference: “The right wing, the anti-EU awkward squad are running the Conservative party, top to toe.”

But it is an argument that could easily hit home with a more engaged electorate, at a time when there is intense public frustration over the handling of the Brexit process – and concern among the kind of voters the new grouping will want to attract over the rise of political extremism.

Soubry tried to draw some equivalence between Ukip entryism into the Conservatives and the change in membership under Corbyn’s Labour.

“It’s a form of tyranny and it’s ironic that Conservatives observe and condemn it in the Labour party but it’s happening in their own party,” said the MP, herself the target of harassment by yellow-vested protesters outside Westminster.

She argued that some Tory MPs were too frightened to say what they believed. Or as Wollaston put it more succinctly: “They are turning the Conservative party to Blukip.”

It is not obvious whether eight former Labour MPs and three Tories can work well together. Whatever they might say about their opinions not changing, they stood on the most divergent main party manifestos for a generation, with Labour calling for the nationalisation of mail, water and rail and the abolition of tuition fees.

Soubry, in particular, raised eyebrows when she spoke up in defence of Osborne’s spending cuts announced under the coalition government, in remarks that delighted Labour’s attack operation, eager to link the new Independent Group to unpopular austerity policies.

Nor is it clear who will lead the Independents, or how a leader will legitimately be chosen, since the group is not yet a political party – although it almost certainly will become one in a matter of weeks.

But, until its MPs face the cold reality of a general election, the Independent Group has a period in which to try to impress itself on the British public, and try to take votes from Labour and Conservatives alike.

So when a relatively unknown young politician such as Allen said: “I can no longer represent a government and a party who can’t open their eyes to the suffering endured by the most vulnerable in society,” they are words that will inevitably have a lingering political impact on May’s already struggling government.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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