Three weeks ago, Anna Soubry and a small number of Tory Remainers gathered in a corner of the Pugin room of the House of Commons, all looking devastated. They had just failed to force the Cooper amendment upon Theresa May’s government. Meanwhile, their arch enemies, the ERG Tories, had succeeded in passing the Brady amendment. Some of them were in the Pugin room as well, drinking champagne. It was a bit of a Sharks vs Jets moment. Now and again, the Brexiteers would raise a glass to Soubry and her friends, who were drinking water. This scene was described to me by an MP who said it showed the party had already split. Today, that split was formalised as Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston joined the new Independent Group.
There is nothing for Conservatives to cheer about today. There will be a temptation to lash out, to focus on the fairly obvious fact that this driven by Brexit. But the UK party political system means that internal coalitions are required in order to avoid the need for external ones. The three departees are Remainers on the party’s left, but to win, the Conservatives need those people as much as they need Brexiteers on the right. I doubt their departure will be crippling. But they have still made some justified critiques of the party.
Take away Brexit, and what’s left of the Tories? What are the party’s passions and priorities? Heidi Allen pointed out that we’re now on our sixth welfare secretary in six years, showing the party’s distinct lack of interest in what once was the flagship Tory policy. From 2010 to 2016 there was only one minister: Iain Duncan Smith. She’s quite right in saying that Theresa May seems not shows no sign of being interested what was, under Cameron, a signature theme of liberal conservatism. Sarah Wollaston was also right to rebuke the Prime Minister about those ‘burning injustices’ she promised to fight on day one but has done precious little about since. As James Forsyth wrote recently, May has almost no agenda save for Brexit: she has let everything else decay. So if you’re a Tory who loathes Brexit, what else is there to support?
Anna Soubry was also right to denounce the shameful treatment of EU nationals and how this has come to symbolise a cold-hearted Brexit. Of the five Tories who stood for the party leadership in 2016, only Theresa May said EU nationals should not be granted immediate assurances. It was a disgusting decision, perhaps the worst policy blunder she has made: not a single Brexiteer proposed this. Soubry was also right to say that Mrs May could and should have been conciliatory to the Remainers and sought to heal the divide. Her decision to then reinvent herself as a Brexit Boudica and call an election to crush the saboteurs was a calamity that led directly to this mess.
But the other critiques made by Soubry et al are more puzzling. We had the old chestnut of Boris Johnson saying ‘f- business’: he was referring to lobbyists who seek to advance corporate interest over the public interest.
The idea that the Tories are being run by a hard-right fringe faction (from top to toe, says Soubry) is the most serious charge, and they are not the first to make it. But it does not stand up to scrutiny. Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto was to the left of any published by the Tories for three decades. The party’s published plans involve the tax rate hitting a 35-year high, one of the highest minimum wages (and foreign aid budgets) in the world, an emancipated defence budget. Then take prison reform, the recent NHS splurge: there is nothing ‘hard right’ about the government, unless you regard Brexit as inherently hard-right. Which Ms Soubry might well do. But this is more despair about the direction the country has taken.
Heidi Allen might have unwittingly put her finger on it. ‘We’re just normal people, with values. The policy part comes secondary,’ she said at the press conference. ‘That’s the kind of grouping that we are.’ So this is more about people than policy; they loathe the ERG and think such Tories now call the shots. This sounds petty, but such personality clashes so often explain so much in Westminster. Anna Soubry spoke of a text message she was sent saying ‘it’s our party, not theirs’. Sharks vs Jets.
Soubry also contrasted Brexiteers with ‘mainstream conservatives’ which is a bit of a push. Brexit might have been a fringe concern ten years ago, but it’s mainstream now – not just amongst Tories, but in the country too. To Soubry, the Tories have turned into ‘Bluekip’. She has a point insofar as Ukip dissolved because the Tories embraced Brexit, but Cameron did promise to implement whatever the public chose.
Heidi Allen said today that big parties ‘want to crush the birth of democracy, crush people like us trying to change things for this country.’ Not quite: under the British system, big parties adopt the agenda of successful challengers in order to steal their voters. And crush them by copying them. This is how parties modernise and adapt. This is how Ukip was consigned to irrelevance. This is why the UK is about the only country in Europe with no populist party. We have perhaps the most responsive democracy in the world.
So will the Tories now adapt, in response to today’s defections and the creation of a new party? It depends on its popularity (YouGov puts it at 14pc, vs 7pc for LibDems) and whether it acquires an agenda beyond opposing Brexit. Tories won’t, and can’t, do that. But they can change other things. They carelessly discarded a radical agenda of social reform, and in so doing discarded a good reason for a lot of people to vote Tory. The defections are not (just) about Brexit, but a cry of despair about a Tory Party that’s losing interest in anything else apart from Brexit. These are all valid criticisms, and may grow in salience.
All told, plenty for Mrs May’s successor to take on board.