Theresa May has said she is ‘saddened’ by the decision of Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry to leave the Conservative party and join the new Independent Group of MPs. In statement released in the past few minutes, the Prime Minister said:
‘I am saddened by this decision – these are people who have given dedicated service to our party over many years, and I thank them for it.
‘Of course, the UK’s membership of the EU has been a source of disagreement both in our party and our country for a long time. Ending that membership after four decades was never going to be easy.
‘But by delivering on our manifesto commitment and implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country. And in doing so, we can move forward together towards a brighter future.”
‘I am determined that under my leadership the Conservative Party will always offer the decent, moderate and patriotic politics that the people of this country deserve.’
This is a gentle response, but it will be interesting to see how the Conservative Party decides to treat the three MPs in the coming days. Labour started by calling on the seven MPs who left on Monday to fight by-elections, and has now hardened its attitude further, suggesting it could allow voters to use the power of recall when an MP defects to another party, thus taking the decision about a by-election out of that MP’s hands.
May broke off her PMQs preparations to respond to these defections. In just half an hour both leaders of the two main parties will stand up, with fewer MPs behind them than last week. Even May and Jeremy Corbyn manage to maintain a strange silence about this fact during their own exchanges, it is inevitable that Speaker Bercow will be keen to pick any member of the Independent Group who tries to catch his eye. PMQs is so often focused on rallying the MPs behind each political leader. Today both leaders may just be focused on appearing that they’ve still got a grip.