After days of bad news for Labour over the decision of several moderates to quit and form The Independent Group, it’s now the turn of the Tories. Three Conservative MPs have today resigned the party whip to join the group. In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen say they no longer feel at home in a party where the policies are so ‘firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP’. They will now join eight former Labour MPs in the newly formed group – bringing the total size up to 11.
While the news has shocked some Conservatives, these three MPs were the politicians who were seen as the most likely to quit. Both Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen are regarded by many colleagues as independent MPs anyway – both taking positions which frequently go against the governments. There is more surprise that Anna Soubry has decided to go. Although Soubry has been very vocal about her dismay at the government’s Brexit position, she is seen as someone who has strong Conservative values in other areas.
This is in part why the news of these three MPs joining the new group is likely to met with some relief by Labour high command. Speaking to Labour politicians and staffers in recent days, there was a view in some quarters that any Tory involvement would prove helpful to Corbyn in deterring more departures. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it makes it easier for Labour to attack – they can accuse former colleague of working with Tories. Secondly, the fact that former Conservative MPs are in it could put off unhappy tribal Labour MPs from making the jump. Soubry’s voting record on austerity can easily be weaponised by Labour. Notably, Momentum have quickly gone on the offensive: ‘It’s clear that the new party is a Blairite-Tory coalition aimed at resurrecting a dead agenda of privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts for the super rich’.
It’s now on the new group to show what they are about – and how they plan to bring this coalition of views together. It could be that this is the beginning of the much-hyped realignment of politics – but for not at least the group appears to be a party made up of second referendum campaigners. More MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour could now follow – particularly those in both parties currently facing deselection threats. However, the involvement of Tories so early on could be enough to at least slow down the pace of Labour defections.