Heidi Allen: Theresa May needs to open her eyes, Tory defector to Independent Group says

The newly independent MP admits she has been disillusioned with politics since the moment she arrived. But the Independent Group could change all that

Tom Peck@tompeck
Friday 22 February 2019 22:01
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Allen (left) with fellow ex-Tories Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston
Allen (left) with fellow ex-Tories Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston

Heidi Allen is the first of the Independent Group’s 11 MPs to self-describe as a ‘TIGger’ and it’s an accurate description.

A week of walkouts from both main parties has been characterised, in the main, by sadness and heartbreak, the culmination in some cases of long years of bullying and intimidation.

But Allen has been almost relentlessly upbeat. It helps, no doubt, that she has been an MP for just three years, and involved in politics in any way at all for only another three before that. She is not, as some of her TIGger colleagues are, walking out on the only life they’ve ever known. It also helps that she is MP for a very pro-Remain constituency in South Cambridgeshire. She has not, in other words, been driven out of her party by bullies, but by her own convictions.

“The reaction both locally and nationally and even just within my old Conservative MP colleagues and peers has been off-the-scale supportive,” she says at the end of a week in which she admits: “I’ve not known what day it’s been from one to the next.

“I genuinely cannot articulate how phenomenal it has been. I think at the last count I had about 2,500 positive emails versus about 60 negative. It’s incredible. I popped into Morrisons for five minutes yesterday to pick up some washing powder and I got stopped by half a dozen people – young, old, male, female, just everybody telling me I’d done the right thing.”

On Wednesday, Allen was the first of the three now ex-Tory MPs to speak at a press conference announcing they were leaving the party. She did so by hammering her own party’s record on welfare, the issue on which she has made something of a name for herself since becoming an MP in 2015. She has also been the most forthright in stating what the Independent Group is for – that it will become a party, and that she wants it to challenge and maybe even win at a general election, whenever that might be.

At that same press conference on Wednesday, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston both spoke of the “Blukip” and “purple momentum” that they say is infiltrating the grassroots of the party, intimidating Remain backing MPs. Allen says she has received “none of that, absolutely none at all”. If anything, she should have worried less about leaving.

“It’s funny really,” she says. “The sadness I anticipated having would be through friends I’d made that I was worried I might lose, and actually – judging by the texts that I’ve had and the WhatsApp messages from colleagues who are still Conservative MPs or peers – they don’t blame me at all. They say they miss me. They say they’re sorry, it should never have come to this. They say they understand why I did it.”

The new group, which is not a party even if some of its members do refer to it as such on occasion, has thus far kept its plans close to its chest. None of its members are intending to fight by-elections. Allen and her colleagues decision to quit has shrunk Theresa May’s working majority even further, making, in the eyes of most analysts, a general election more likely, but that is not how she sees it. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have, she says, been “shaken to the core” by what has happened.

“The prime minister knows how many nervous ministers and backbenchers there are that are sympathetic to our cause. So I’m not sure that she and Jeremy Corbyn would even dare trigger that nuclear button because of what it might do to their respective parties. So if anything, it puts a general election even further away.”

The prospect of a general election is made even less likely by the group’s stance that they would back Ms May in a vote of no confidence. “This is all such a jigsaw, it is very hard to game-plan,” she says. “But what we have definitely agreed is that anything that would facilitate a general election we wouldn’t support. To the contrary, we are hoping that we three Tory, or rather ex-Tory, women will have been a wakeup call to the prime minister.”

In the joint resignation to Theresa May, Allen, Soubry and Wollaston told Theresa May the Conservative Party was no longer the One Nation party they believed they had joined and, just like Labour, had been taken over by its hardline factions. They received a blunt reply, in which Theresa May told them she “does not accept the parallel you draw with Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left”.

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It is an answer that, for Allen, speaks to the entire problem. “She is wrong. She needs to open her eyes. If she can’t see it then the party really is in trouble, because it is clear as day for everyone to see,” she says.

She talks about all the various amendments – the Grieve amendment, the Cooper Boles amendment and so on – as evidence that Theresa May is negotiating and compromising with the wrong side.

“[May has] got to stop trying to appease the ERG [European Research Group], because they are not interested and they never have been, and we have told you this until we are blue in the face, that they are the wrong people to be negotiating with.”

There is, she says, a consensus in parliament for a soft Brexit, involving the single market and the customs union, and May must engage with it. “That is why the various versions of Grieve and Cooper and Boles and all the different amendments that have been going around have sought to do. To take the matter out of her hands and to keep them clean. That is still a possibility. But she has got to stop trying to make peace with the ERG because that’s impossible.”

Allen says she has been disillusioned with politics almost since the day she arrived. “It took me til October to make my maiden speech,” she says. “I assumed from the outside that everything would be, you know, a big team, the sharpest minds, the best people in the business. The health secretary or the defence secretary or whoever it might be would of course be the expert in that field. And I was just shocked when I got there about how it’s really not like that. And guess what, they give you bits of paper with helpful things to say written on them. I found that utterly staggering.”

She hopes this new group will do things differently. “Evidence-based policy, positive campaigning”, that kind of thing. The Independent Group will try and run things more like the businesses she is used to running. MPs could have “training and development plans”.

For now, the Independent Group is personally trying to develop a leader, something Allen says “would hope will happen in the next couple of weeks”.

She has previously indicated that Chuka Umunna is the group’s natural leader but she is keen to clarify that. “All I’ve said is that Chuka is the one that has coordinated us so far. The team that we have today will be different from the one we have in six months.”

This is by no means the first attempt to shake up British politics – indeed, many previous attempts have been successful. For now it would seem somewhat Eeyore-like, and not Tiggerish at all, to point out that the pieces have a remarkable knack of all landing back in the same place.

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