The three Conservative defectors to the Independent Group gave a notably upbeat press conference this lunchtime. It was quite a contrast to the sorrowful tone struck by the seven Labour MPs who announced they were leaving on Monday. Heidi Allen claimed that she was ‘so excited and in a way that I haven’t felt since I was first elected’. She also cracked jokes about the three amigos as she opened the event.
It has never been fully clear why Allen joined the Conservative party over any other, but Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston both argued that the organisation had been transformed in the years since they were first elected. Like the Labour defectors, they wanted to suggest that their values had not changed, but their party had. Soubry described a ‘hollowing out’ of the party, adding that ‘the right wing, the hardline anti EU awkward squad…are now running the Conservative party.’ While Allen complained about Tory welfare policy, the other two were most agitated about Brexit.
It is clear that Soubry and Wollaston feel as though their faction has been ignored by the Tory leadership. They complained about the number of meetings that Theresa May had held with the European Research Group, and said that their pro-Remain colleagues had not had the same access. The need for attention is something that anyone who wants to understand the Conservative psyche has to recognise: it was often a key factor in eurosceptic rebellions against David Cameron, for instance.
At the moment, all of the MPs in the group have roughly the same views on Brexit. But when asked whether this was an anti-Brexit party, Soubry said it was actually open to all. There wasn’t anything in those opening statements that suggested any policy splits with Independent Group members from Labour. But if neither the Labour nor Conservative defectors’ values have changed, then there must logically be a split between these MPs, even if they haven’t yet realised that themselves.
In the question and answer session afterwards, Soubry underlined this by defending the economic decisions of the coalition government, something that would-be Labour defectors will find very difficult.