Heidi Allen interview: How I made the decision to quit Tories and my hopes for Independent Group
Heidi Allen has told the Cambridge Independent how she reached her decision to leave the Conservative Party and spoken of her hopes that the new Independent Group will unleash a new age of politics in Britain.
The South Cambridgeshire MP revealed how she had weighed up all the pros and cons over “a couple of months”, and said the country was “desperate for a new moderate, centre-ground party”.
Alarmed by the country’s path towards a no-deal Brexit, and dismayed by the grip of hardline Eurosceptic MPs on the Conservatives, Ms Allen announced that she was quitting the Tories on Monday, along with her colleagues, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston.
They join the eight MPs who had left Labour and formed the Independent Group, which has yet to be formed into a party.
Speaking at the end of her whirlwind day in the political spotlight, Ms Allen said: “It has been scary and exciting and phenomenal in equal measure.
“The response has been unbelievable. You dare to dream that we might just do something with this new project.
“It’s been quite incredible, actually. I can’t even get near my emails - my phone is literally melting in my hand!”
Policy in the Tory party, she said, was now being dictated by MPs in the right-wing European Research Group (ERG), acting as a party within a party.
“We have tried various tactics over months and months, whether it’s been through amendments, meetings, conversations with the chief whip, with the Prime Minister herself,” she said. “Wherever and however it has been possible to influence, we have tried. Ministers themselves have said openly that there have been no signs of a change of direction. It is pushing right, more and more, towards a position of no deal.
“We were literally left with no other tools in our armoury. This was the only thing open to us.”
But Ms Allen insisted that even if the Prime Minister Theresa May pulled off a last-minute agreement with the EU and averted a no-deal Brexit, that would not render the new Independent Group redundant.
“If Theresa May comes back with a deal that somehow addresses all our concerns around safeguarding our economy etc, then that will be absolutely brilliant. But today was more than just about Brexit,” she said.
“If all the new Independent Group is interested in is Brexit, then we deserve to fail on day one.
“Our belief is that the country is desperate for a new moderate, centre-ground party with the Labour party having veered very heavily to the left and now the Conservative party to the right. If we were just about Brexit, then we’d be like UKIP version two in one form I suppose.
“Our immediate priority is absolutely to get a good deal through Parliament and if that’s not possible, go to a second referendum.
“That’s the fundamental difference between what we are trying to create now and the typical old fashioned party structures. This is about finding the right answers and doing the analysis. It’s not about saying ‘We can’t vote for that because it’s a blue policy, or a red policy’. We want good policies.”
Beyond a shared concern over the Brexit process, Ms Allen said the group enjoyed shared values.
“Politicians aren’t any different to anybody else - people who you get to know in the pub, or through friends. The first question you ask is not ‘How do you vote?’ It’s about the sort of people you are,” she said.
But what are those values?
“A sense of fairness, economic competence - and business has a massive role to play in that - and we should be able to do things competently but with compassion as well.
“That’s one of the things I feel very let down by in the Conservative Party. Certainly, when I joined under David Cameron I thought that was absolutely at the top of his list.
“And it was one of the things the Prime Minister said on the steps of Number 10.
“But we seen to have lost our way irreparably from that,” she said.
“It’s about a belief in democracy and a sense that we have very, very privileged positions as MPs but we should be building our policy around what the British people tell us they want, and what their priorities are.”
The group may be hopeful of attracting new defectors in the coming days, but for now, the Independent Group is not a party, nor does it have a leader.
“We are not in a rush,” said Ms Allen. “We are not a pop-up party. We’re not going to have a manifesto tomorrow. We want to get through the immediate risk of no-deal Brexit. Then we want to build from the ground up. It’s grass-roots, wiping the slate clean and starting again.”
The ‘Brexodus’ of the ‘gang of three’ Tories has unquestionably breathed life into the fledgling Independent Group, launched on Monday. It has also prompted calls for by-elections in their constituencies, something the MPs have resisted as they seek to build momentum in the group.
“It’s interesting that our colleagues have said that with Anna, Sarah and I joining it has given it a new lease of life. It was quite nervous on Monday,” Ms Allen revealed.
“Now we feel as a group more positive than ever that this is actually possible. Of course, the aim is to create a party but we don’t want to rush into that.
“If we rush, we’ll fall into the same errors of the traditional parties of the past that frankly have got us into the mess we’re in. So we do want to take things slowly and make sure we get it right. But that is of course the ambition: a new party and ultimately to be in government.”
But some have questioned the ability of the new group, drawn from opposite sides of the House of Commons, to agree on fundamental issues.
“We’ve been asked a lot about how on Earth, if some of us are from Labour and some from the Conservatives and we have different views on budgets and austerity, are we going to agree on anything?
“But that’s the point. We are able to compromise because our values are very similar.
“You get Sellotaped to policies when you become part of a party and whether you’ve got a view on it or not you are obliged to follow the party line. But between us, if we’re from different starting points, if we are able to knock policy around and come up with a compromise, that suggests it will probably pass the mustard test with the British public as well, because the vast majority of people in Britain are in the middle ground: sensible, fair, fiscally responsible.
“If we can find compromise, I think we’ve got a good chance of selling it to the public.”
The Prime Minister said she was “saddened” by the defections.
But for Ms Allen, the new group represents an opportunity to move away from the tribalism that infects British politics and make the most of people’s skills.
“I came into politics pretty late on, with no prior interest at all, as most people know. I was so naive as to think I could set the world on fire on day one. But I did think my views and my experience of running business may have been of of use to the party,” she said.
“We were a big intake in 2015. Where was the sitting down with our CVs to see what our background was? There was none of that at all, which tells me the party structures as they have always been are flawed and outdated now.
“If you are a chief exec of a firm and you get 100 new employees, what’s the first thing you do? You get HR in and you find out what specialists you have, who is good at what, what departments they should be in, who you should get trained up. There’s none of that.
“That’s not making the most of the people we have in Parliament. That’s where the numbness comes from.
“It’s all too easy just to be ‘voting fodder’ and do as you are told. That felt to me a great disservice to those of us who choose to go into public life and become MPs. We should be able to contribute more than that.”
While the decision to announce her departure was only taken this week, Ms Allen revealed she has grappled with the issue for many weeks.
“The ultimate decision of when to leave the party came very quickly. We didn’t know the Labour group were going to come out on Monday.
“But have we been thinking about this for a couple of months? Yes. You have to weigh all the pros and cons,” she said.
“Any MPs out there that are considering joining us need to really think deeply about this. We wouldn’t want people who are flippant about this - ‘I’m bored, I need a change, they look different and new’. This is a massive decision to take.
“All sorts of things went through my head. Where was the best place to influence? Universal Credit is my passion: Will I still have the same influence over government if I’m not in the Conservative Party? Brexit: Will I help or hinder that? So all those things have to be weighed up.
“It wasn’t a decision I came to quickly. It’s been over weeks and weeks and through analysis of the situation and what techniques had worked. Was there any hope of convincing the Prime Minister? You weight it all up and then there’s a moment of clarity, which came to me a couple of weeks ago.”
The ramifications are likely to last for some time.