The Conservative MP on political realignment and why she won’t vote for May’s dealby Alex Dean / November 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
British politics is under immense strain. The traditional two-party system is collapsing under the weight of Brexit. Remainers are in despair at what they perceive to be a Eurosceptic takeover, and full-scale political realignment is on the cards.
Possible defectors to a new centrist party usually scramble to deny any involvement. But then Heidi Allen is not your usual kind of politician. The Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire told me she is really “at heart an independent.”
Elected in 2015 she quickly earned a reputation as someone who refuses to toe the line. Her pointed interventions on Brexit—and also the fiasco of Universal Credit—frequently make headlines. Earlier in the year she came out for a second referendum, making the government’s job of selling its controversial deal, struck in Brussels last week, harder still.
When we met in her office just across from the parliamentary press gallery, she lived up to her outspoken reputation.
When I asked if she would ever join a centrist party, she replied “I probably would.” What would push her out of the Tory Party? If “we don’t get back to where I believe we should be, which is more centre-ground… that’s what wins elections.”
Hard right-wing Brexiteers, including the pro-Brexit European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, would like to think they are in the driving seat now.
“I don’t see how I can vote for the deal”
Last week they attempted a coup against the PM, announcing that they had enough MPs’ letters to trigger a confidence vote. Yet days later the threshold has still not been met. Did they overplay their hand?
Allen was scathing: “the sheer arrogance… with which Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg went out to the press actively shouting about how many letters were out there, I couldn’t believe that.”
“Throughout this entire process they have been bullying the prime minister and behaving rather like they own parliament… and they put themselves back in the box, which is quite incredible really, just to do that through their own arrogance and incompetence.”
A Conservative MP calling out her colleagues in this way is extraordinary, even in these febrile times, but indicative of the division coursing through Westminster.
Which politicians does Allen have more sympathy with? “My hope was always Ruth [Davidson], but I get the feeling she’s going to enjoy being a mother so much that she’s not going to want to come back. I might be wrong.” The leader of the Scottish Conservatives gave birth earlier in the autumn.
The immediate question in Westminster now is whether the government can get MPs to back its deal. There is no guarantee of this: the reception has been deeply hostile, and Allen said, in remarks that will horrify the whips, “I don’t see how I can vote for the deal, because it is shaped as a consequence of how [the PM] is trying to please everybody and it’s just not possible to do that.”
The PM seems instead to have pleased no one: the hard Brexiteers claim they will vote against, as will the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs. What happens if the agreement cannot get through? “There are many of us trying to game plan and work out where it might go… it seems to me that if the government or parliament fails, then there is no option other than to bring it back to the people.” The answer is a “people’s vote.”
This is of course anathema for the Eurosceptics, and a second referendum would arguably be even more divisive than the first. It is not clear that the Tory Party could survive it.
The Europe issue has plagued the Conservatives for decades now. Allen reflected: “the question is of course whether this wound will ever heal enough for us to come back together.” A formal split is “possible. It depends what happens.” Because the ground keeps shifting. This whole Brexit process “is like quicksand.”