Heidi Allen: “The fact people are trying to pick holes shows we must be a bit of a threat”
Ever since she railed against George Osborne’s welfare cuts, Heidi Allen’s relationship with the Conservatives looked fragile. After months of feeling disillusioned with her adopted party, she helped to form The Independent Group. Now interim leader of the rebranded Change UK, the South Cambridgeshire MP is hopeful for success at the European elections – but says Brexit cannot be everything that her party’s about. She talks to Sebastian Whale
A Heidi Allen-shaped figure approaches the upstairs window. “Hello,” she says, warmly. “Do you mind surveying the scenery for about 10 minutes? I’m just getting ready.”
Our taxi has just dropped us off outside Allen’s home in a small sleepy village in her South Cambridgeshire constituency. It’s mid-morning on Thursday, and she has been going for several hours despite finishing work at gone 1. Displaying admirable dexterity, she guides us through her front door while running a conference call and making sure her two cats, Jessica and Chloe, don’t escape out into the nearby fields.
Though never one to shy away from grafting, being interim leader of a political party has pushed her to new levels.
“Being an MP is busy. Having Brexit to deal with as an MP is busy. If you’re an MP with about 30,000 more electorates than you should have because the area is growing so much – and they’re all massive Remainers with 24 PhDs each and have an opinion – then you’re really busy. Then you decide to leave your party and set up a new one, then you become the interim leader... I am a hard worker. I’ve always worked hard all my life, but I have never known an intensity like this,” she says.
All the while Allen is overseeing work being done to her bright and airy home that she shares with her husband, Phil, who runs her family’s paint business in her place. As Jessica circles her feet, she is grateful to those around her for providing support.
“I’m lucky that I have an incredibly brilliant supportive husband – and cats. If I had a family, I don’t think I could do this. I really don’t. That’s the difficult thing about this job, isn’t it? We want more people in from ordinary backgrounds and more women, but it’s not an easy job to do,” she reflects.
Allen was one of three Conservatives and eight Labour MPs to quit their parties in February and form The Independent Group (TIG), now known as Change UK. The Electoral Commission, Allen tells me, did not want the word ‘independent’ on the ballot paper in case it confused voters. The party hierarchy had to come up with a new name sharpish to register in time for the next month’s European elections.
This week has been a baptism of fire for Allen. On Tuesday, Change UK launched their campaign in Bristol, unveiling candidates including former BBC journalist Gavin Esler and Rachel Johnson. By Wednesday, two Change UK MEP candidates had pulled out over offensive past comments on social media, despite the party employing an external company to vet those who put themselves forward. How did this come about?
“That’s a conversation we’ll need to have. We paid for a professional top-end vetting company to do that work for us. They’ve missed a couple of things,” she replies. How does it make her feel? “Angry, disappointed. It’s unprofessional, it’s not good enough. But we’re not perfect, nobody’s perfect. In any area of life, you accept you can’t do everything yourself. That’s why you pay other organisations or businesses to do things for you where they have the skills.”
Many of the party’s critics, irked by some TIG MPs’ previous remarks on internal party discipline, have seized on the offensive posts. “It’s the reality of being in politics, isn’t it? I tell you what, if people weren’t jumping up and down on us and trying to pick holes, that would mean that we don’t matter. The fact that they’re having to says we must be a bit of a threat,” says Allen. “What is it they say, there’s no such thing as bad news, bad press or whatever the phrase is? I definitely subscribe to that. But if we were indifferent, if we were insignificant they wouldn’t care. That tells me we must be doing something right.”
For Allen, a good result at the European elections would see the party pick up “a range of seats” in different parts of the UK. It will also be a “proxy referendum” and a test of how well Change UK is registering with the electorate, she says. But Allen is keen to show that the party is about more than just stopping Brexit.
“Brexit is a massive, massive issue, but it cannot be everything that we’re about. I want to get onto the exciting stuff, I want to sort welfare out, I want to deal with education, I want to get some proper funding in my schools. I want to get onto all that other stuff, but Brexit, as it is with everything in life, is just stalling and stopping us from getting onto the really important stuff,” she says.
Never far away, however, is the threat of Nigel Farage. The former Ukip man launched the Brexit party’s European election campaign with a diverse group of candidates and rising grassroots following. The party took a five-point lead in a recent YouGov poll on the European elections. Meanwhile, those who back a second referendum can choose between the Liberal Democrats, Change UK, the Green party and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists at the ballot box.
“Farage, he is a strong communicator, whatever your views on what he says. He has got that licked,” Allen concedes. “We are a week behind. That is a practical fact because we were picking candidates, we had our launch event. But we’ve got our infrastructure in place and we are ready to go. People will see a very different presence and a building presence in the few weeks that we have to go. We have to show people… we are on the same side here and we are determined that the Remain voice will hopefully be the winning voice.”
Allen speaks positively about key Lib Dem figures and says she is in contact with the party’s chief executive, Sir Nick Harvey. Lib Dem activists tell her that of the party’s 100,000 members, around 80,000 have joined since the referendum and are “all really excited about the TIGers and what that all means”.
“My sense is that as a whole organisation, they recognise that split in their supporter base and their MPs, I suspect, feel that way too. But you still have to be kind and respectful to the history and you can’t rush that,” Allen replies, when I ask if it is her party’s plan to incorporate the Lib Dems.
“In an ideal world these European elections wouldn’t have come now, we’d be continuing to have respectful, ongoing dialogue and I am confident, really confident, and excited about the fact that we will.”
As for further defections, Allen says she is having conversations with several Labour and Tory MPs. Some have concerns about their mortgage, she tells me, others are waiting to see who the next Tory leader is (if it’s Boris, Allen says more will leave), while others are wrestling with how their constituencies voted at the referendum.
“We’re not pushing people. People will get there in their own time. I do believe there will be a good number still to come, and some peers as well,” she says.
“It’s an abusive relationship for some people. How some of the Labour MPs have coped from what I hear about the internal mechanisms of the Labour party. It sounds absolutely horrendous. I’ve not experienced anything like that when I was in the Conservative party.
“It’s a toxic relationship and being brave enough having been beaten down, having been told that you’re worthless and you’re not the great redeemer, feeling confident enough in yourself to think, ‘do you know what, my constituents deserve better. I’m off’. They’re not quick decisions for people to make.”
I first met Allen in November 2015 when I interviewed her for Total Politics. She had just spoken out against George Osborne’s cuts to working tax credits and proved herself to be a free thinker on the Conservative backbenchers. At the time, she told me she would probably be better suited to being an independent MP.
Inspired to join politics after the 2011 riots, Allen, who has a degree in astrophysics and worked for ExxonMobil and Royal Mail, chose to join the Conservatives. But looking back, was she ever really a Tory? She insists she was but had not foreseen her party migrating towards backing an “economy-wrecking Brexit deal”.
Allen, however, was an increasingly isolated figure in her former party having spoken out on many occasions against the Government’s welfare policy and approach to Brexit. Things became “intolerable” towards the end of 2018, and she went into the new year looking for change, Allen says.
“It creeps up on you over time. If it was just a single thing, ‘right, I’ve had enough, I’m out’, that would show that we’re a bit flippant and flaky. It should be if you’re serious about this – it’s a serious job – that you give it due consideration and think about things properly.”
With all 11 TIG MPs in favour of a second referendum, the party quickly became known for its pro-Remain stance. But despite Change UK’s support of another vote, the party is opposed to holding a general election. Some have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy between wanting to change the country and turning down an opportunity to do so.
“I’m not sure the two things are related. The general election point is nothing to do with us, it’s just what’s best for the country right now. The country is really on the edge,” Allen says.
“What manifestos would the two big parties stand on? Both parties are so majorly splintered. I don’t practically see how any of us could come out of it intact the other side. We’d end up with a hung parliament again. Right, as we were then. I just don’t think it brings us any closer to a conclusion than this.”
Having said that, Allen confirms that she would stand in her current constituency if an election was called. “Change UK, People’s Front of Judea, whatever the party might ever be, I will only ever stand here. If they keep me, fabulous. If they throw me out, they throw me out.”
For Allen, a referendum would add “clarity” to the current impasse. But what would be on the ballot paper? She argues there’s some “knocking around” to do in the Commons to see which avenue – such as a customs union – has the most support. That would then be put to the public in a referendum versus Remain. She adds: “There’s a debate to be had around whether you have a three-stage voting process that includes a clean no-deal Brexit. For some people, they believe that is Brexit. There’s maybe some debate to be had around that.”
What would she think about no deal being on the ballot paper? “I have some sympathy for it. The Electoral Commission would have a view about how it might split the vote or whether it might artificially give advantage in one direction or the other. That’s the argument people say, ‘well, you’ll be splitting the vote if it’s the leaving deal or the no deal’. If that is the conclusion, then clearly, we can’t have that,” she answers.
“But I feel like we should be offering no deal to some people because that is clean Brexit. But one thing I am, without doubt, 100 per cent clear on is that Remain as we are has to be on the ballot paper because that’s what we’re comparing. We’re in it, versus whatever the brave new world might look like.”
Allen has been “thrilled to bits” with the reaction in South Cambridgeshire to her decision to quit the Tories and form Change UK. Tears well in her eyes as she recalls being given a standing ovation upon entering a town hall meeting called to explain her decision. “I get emotional about that because for people to have put their trust in me was amazing.”
Whatever you think of Change UK and the MPs who formed it, to go over the top and leave their respective parties was an undoubtedly brave move in the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Recent events have shown that the building blocks of a political movement are taking shape and with them many of the challenges that face parties of all creeds.
But like the boarded-up parts of Allen’s soon-to-be refurbished house, the work is not yet complete, and the final product not yet in sight.