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Heidi Allen: Ex-Conservative MP joins Lib Dems and suggests at least 20 more ‘one-nation' Tories would like to follow suit

October 8, 2019 2:39 PM
By Andrew Woodcock Political Editor @andywoodcock Fo in The Independent

Jo SwinsonSouth Cambridgeshire MP is the latest in a string of high-profile defections to Jo Swinson's party

Former Conservative MP Heidi Allen has been unveiled as the latest recruit to the Liberal Democrats, declaring that at least 20 more "One Nation" Tories would like to follow suit.

Ms Allen told The Independent the Tory Party no longer offered a home for MPs from its centrist tradition, though she admitted she did not know if any would have the "bravery" to jump ship.

Boris Johnson's leadership was doing "irreparable" damage to the party, turning it into a "Ukip or Brexit Party Mk II" dominated by the "bullying" voices of the hard-right Eurosceptic fringe, she said.

"The party I joined doesn't exist any more," she added.

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson hailed the South Cambridgeshire MP's move as "fantastic" news and said she was "hopeful" that more pro-Europeans from other parties would come in her wake.

In recent weeks, the party has seen its ranks swollen by the arrival of ex-Tories Sarah Wollaston, Sam Gyimah and Phillip Lee as well as Chuka Umunna, Angela Smith and Luciana Berger, previously of Labour. Ms Allen's arrival brings the Lib Dem tally in the Commons to 19.

Ms Swinson said she was "in discussions" with potential switchers and "always hopeful of further defections", but declined to say whether new recruits were in the pipeline.

And Ms Allen, who has been sitting as an independent since quitting Change UK in June, said she was "absolutely" in touch with serving Tory MPs who shared her concerns over the direction the party was taking under Mr Johnson.

"I'm not saying everybody should casually resign the whip, but for me it was the right thing and I know that in other MPs' hearts they know it's the right thing to do," she said. "There has got to be at least 20."

Asked if she expected any to follow her, she replied: "I couldn't say for sure that any will. I'd like to say yes, but one of the things that's disappointed me most since I became an MP is the lack of bravery that there is."

Ms Swinson said she had been working with her new MP for "a long time" on issues like the campaign for a Final Say referendum, and the pair have been "in close contact" over a possible defection since Ms Allen left Change.

And Ms Allen revealed that she was considering an eventual move to the Lib Dems even while she was leader of Change UK during its disastrous European election campaign, when she clashed with Anna Soubry over her suggestion supporters should vote tactically for other anti-Brexit parties.

"I was talking about an alignment in the centre ground from the very beginning," she said. "It was a question for me of whether having a holding position as an independent group would make it easier for other MPs to jump, but in the end not many did."

Ms Allen said she held off her move to the Lib Dems until the Unite to Remain movement - which she formed to promote pro-EU electoral pacts at the coming election - was securely established.

She vowed she would "absolutely" contest the seat she has held since 2015 in the election - telling The Independent: "I wouldn't stand anywhere else," - and insisted she was hopeful of overturning a towering Tory majority of almost 16,000 from 2017.

"The constituency is probably close to 70 per cent Remain, and from the moment I left the Conservatives I have literally had thousands of emails from constituents and people coming up to me in the street saying they are grateful I had put the national interest first," she said.

She insisted that she would not stand down to spark a by-election, pointing out that she used her own literature in the 2017 poll rather than the pro-Brexit material put out by Tory central office.

And she said there were "dozens" of traditional Tory heartland constituencies like hers which are now vulnerable to Lib Dems because their voters are turned off by the narrow Eurosceptic views of the Johnson administration.

Naming Winchester and Guildford, as well as some of the seats of the 21 no-deal rebels who have been barred from standing for the Tories at the election, Ms Allen said: "There are an awful lot of places where compassionate, moderate, centre-ground, progressive voters have previously backed the Conservatives.

"The Tory Party has completely turned its back on those voters and there is a real chance - with the Lib Dems offering that kind of politics - those seats could be lost to them.

"The most terrifying thing to me is that Boris Johnson seems to care not one jot about those voters or the MPs who have been loyal to him. His approach is to attack the Labour heartlands instead. But you win elections on the centre ground."

Heidi Allen served as Change UK leader during the European elections (AFP/Getty)

Ms Allen was marked out as an independent voice on the Tories' centrist wing from her maiden speech in the Commons, when she was critical of the party's approach to welfare - something she admits "probably limited my opportunities for promotion".

A former entrepreneur, who put her business on hold to enter politics, said she was attracted by the compassionate and pro-business agenda pursued by the coalition government under David Cameron.

"The Conservative Party since then has changed beyond recognition," she said.

"I don't see that I have changed at all, it is the party that has changed irreparably. The party that I joined doesn't exist any more. It is self-imploding, it is turning into the new Brexit Party."

And she said it was a "very, very risky" question whether the Conservative Party would even survive its current traumas.

"The loud, bullying voices of the European Research Group have been allowed to capture the party and push it to the precipice of a no-deal Brexit, which would be unbelievably damaging for our economy, our society and our Union. Anybody who shares 'One Nation' values does not have a home there any more."

By contrast, she said the Lib Dems under Ms Swinson offer "an incredibly positive beacon for what our future could be", not only on Brexit, but also social justice, compassionate welfare and honesty over spending on the NHS and social care.

Ms Allen's defection was announced hours after the latest talks between opposition leaders seeking a means to prevent no-deal Brexit broke-up without progress on the key issue of the leadership of a possible caretaker government to extend Article 50 talks.

Ms Swinson said there were still "constructive" discussions happening, but said that if Labour stuck to its position that only Jeremy Corbyn could head a temporary caretaker administration, then "it won't happen because we know what the numbers are of people unwilling to back him - not just Liberal Democrats but also rebel Conservatives and the increasingly large number of MPs who have left Labour or are still in the Labour Party but cannot contemplate Corbyn in No 10".

The Lib Dem leader said she could name "a dozen" MPs who could fill the role of caretaker PM, but said this was only one of a number of routes open to those opposing no deal.

Progress on issues like the Benn Act, to prevent Mr Johnson opting for no deal without parliamentary approval, had been made not in meetings of opposition leaders but in a wider group including rebel Tories and Labour backbenchers, she pointed out.

Stressing that the Lib Dem door remains open to future defectors, Ms Swinson said: "It remains the case that there are lots of MPs who are unhappy with the current direction of both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn and who share our values of internationals and a fairer and more inclusive society and want to stop Brexit and create a more positive future for our country.

"Obviously, I hope more of them will be joining us, but these things happen in their own time."

Asked if she was actively talking with potential defectors, she replied: "I'm always in discussions."