Late to the party: the new band of Lib Dem MPs
13 min read
Since the summer the Liberal Democrats have picked up no fewer than seven defecting MPs. How did the defections come about, and what does their arrival mean for the future of the party and British politics? Charlotte Henry speaks to them to find out
Defections are a rare thing in British politics. Or at least they used to be. In recent months, seven MPs have joined the Liberal Democrats from other parties, swelling the ranks of Jo Swinson’s team to 19. Chuka Umunna made the move first, and has subsequently been joined by others from both the Conservative and Labour parties, as well as independents.
But is this coup for the Lib Dems a result of the short-term chaos of Brexit, or does it signal a deeper shift away from the two main parties and towards the centre? I sat down with some of the defectors to find out.
‘I can look in the mirror again’
Speaking to some of the new Lib Dem recruits, it is clear that the decision brings with it both a sense of sadness and a sense of relief. Heidi Allen, the most recent defector, describes the move as “a very emotional release” that meant “I could look myself in the mirror again”, while Sam Gyimah says he feels “liberated”. “It’s not just on Brexit,” he explains, “the Liberal Democrats are exactly where I am.” Sarah Wollaston, meanwhile, just wishes she had “made the change sooner”. Former Labour MP Luciana Berger insists that “if I was getting involved in politics today, the only party I’d be able to join today is the Liberal Democrats”.
Just because they are happy in their new party, that doesn’t mean the moves has been easy. Ties with their former parties are hard to break. Gyimah had been in the Tories for two decades, Phillip Lee for nearly three. Although Lee is unequivocal that he has made the right decision for himself and his constituents he says that “getting used to a new party, new culture, new way of working, new faces”. “It’s like changing schools.”
In these tumultuous political times, it is easy to dismiss the personal toll leaving a political party can have on politicians. Gyimah says that he “agonised a lot” about the decision. Lee too confides that “on a personal level, it wasn’t straight forward”. “I had relationships with people built up over many, many years.”
“It felt like being in some sort of Soviet exfiltration. I was put in a two-star hotel as far from the conference as possible and couldn’t leave the room for five hours”
Both Lee and Gyimah previously served as Conservative ministers. However, their moves to the Lib Dems were rather different. Lee had been on “defection watch” from the whips for a while. His defection took place in the Chamber, when he physically crossed the floor to sit with the Lib Dems. Gyimah had the Tory whip removed after defying Boris Johnson. His move was even more elaborately staged than Lee’s, as he was met by a beaming Jo Swinson on stage at the party’s conference.
“Once the decision was made, so much of the focus was getting to Bournemouth for the party conference,” he explains. “It felt like being involved in some sort of Soviet exfiltration exercise. I was put in a two-star hotel as far from the conference centre as possible and I couldn’t come out the room for five hours. When we arrived at the venue we had to go through the basement, the recycling centre.”
Never doubt the glamour of politics.
Many people actually expected it to be Allen who was unveiled at the party conference. Allen herself insists she had not planned to move then. “Since the European elections in May I’ve been doing nothing other than getting this Unite to Remain project off the ground… I wasn’t prepared to look at any other options for me until I’d got that progressed far enough.”
Allen reveals that former leader Vince Cable recently joked to her that he was about to introduce her onto stage before he was told that it was Gyimah, not her, who was joining. “So even they thought I was going,” she laughs. “But I literally wasn’t. I’d had no conversations. There was nothing happening whatsoever. So I spent the days leading up to conference literally just copy and paste, copy and paste from text messages to journalists going ‘it’s not me, it’s not me’. I actually thought it was going to be Margot James.”
Gyimah says he received a very warm welcome at Lib Dem conference. He does not think that those who had viewed his previous media appearances had seen much that “jarred with their idea of what a Liberal Democrat is”.
Things were not as straightforward for Lee. The Chair of the LGBT+ Lib Dems, Jennie Rigg, resigned from the party upon his defection. She accused the former justice minister of homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. These are accusations he very strongly denies.
Given the chance to once again state his views, Lee says it his “strong belief – let religious institutions marry who they like. In law, homosexual and heterosexual marriages should be equal.”
Similarly controversial to members of his new party was his 2014 amendment to the Immigration Bill, which said that those who apply for immigration must demonstrate they do not have HIV. He insists it “was a public health issue not an equality issue”. “I don’t want people to get HIV…I don’t care whether they’re from Zimbabwe or Slough…I think it’s an illness I want to eradicate. It’s got absolutely nothing to do someone’s sexuality, ethnicity, colour of their skin…I don’t like HIV. I also don’t like Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. A first year medical student, actually an A-level student, could tell you can’t eradicate a virus unless you know where it is.”
Overall though, the party conference was a positive experience for the new MPs. Berger describes the atmosphere as “really, really positive”. “Even people that disagreed with each other did so in a courteous and constructive way. There were people there who were really pleased to see me, so that was nice!” she adds, contrasting her experience with recent Labour conferences, where she has been accompanied by police officers.
Wollaston also enjoyed her first experience of the Lib Dem conference. “I loved it! It was such a refreshing change,” she says. “There was all the ghastly corporate sponsorship,” at Conservative conference, she explains, “everything from the Tate and Lyle lanyards onwards”.
“I honestly don’t know why any Conservative member would go to the Conservative party conference,” she continues. “They’re almost completely ignored and treated as a bit of an inconvenience. They’re not even allowed to sit in the front row unless they fit in with the new Tory branding, you have to be sort of young and beautiful to be sitting anywhere near the front of the stage. Whereas you go to the Lib Dem conference and it’s all about the members. It’s much less corporate. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Another key aspect in the new recruits seems to be the election of Swinson as leader. Berger says the pair have known each other for a while, and the defection process took time. “We had a number of discussions, coffees over the last number of months. It was a gradual process. I was waiting obviously to see what happened in the leadership election and also to see what she would say in the wake of that election should she be successful.”
Wollaston liked both Swinson and leadership rival Ed Davey. However, she believes Swinson offers a real, positive alternative compared to opponents Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Something Berger is in agreement with. “Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn? That isn’t a choice,” says the Liverpool Wavertree MP. “Having to choose the least worst option isn’t a choice. It’s not what should be a choice in our democracy.” Allen is equally effusive about her new leader. “Jo just stands out for me, compared to the other two, as being hands-down the only thing that looks like the future might look,” she says.
No Change UK
For Berger, Wollaston, and Allen, the route to the Lib Dems was a circuitous one. They came via the ill-fated the Independent Group – Change UK. Allen, who was made leader when the group became an official party explains what went wrong. She says “there was some personality stuff around when the chips are against you how you gel. For a very new team to gel together, that’s hard”.
It is clear there was a difference in approach from many in the group. Allen says that the elections “really started to highlight the differences between us”. “For some of us, like me, I don’t care if we lose. I just want to stop Nigel Farage. So let’s tell everyone to tactically vote and if it’s the Greens in one region or it’s Lib Dems there, that’s the important thing. And that was an alien concept to some in the group. For those of us who had left our parties to break politics and do things differently that felt a really natural thing to do, but not for everybody.”
For Berger, it was different experience as she gave birth to her second child a fortnight after leaving the Labour party. “I had a particular experience compared to the rest of my colleagues in that I tried to contribute and play a part, but I wasn’t able to play my full part. I was looking after a newborn at home.” This meant, though, that she was “afforded the space to reflect and to see things from afar.”
“Everyone says ‘you joined Change UK’. No, I didn’t. I left the Labour party to join the Independent Group. The ambition of the Independent Group was to see whether there was an appetite across the country for a new party. Now, events took over, which meant the majority decision was taken to become a party in the wake of the European elections that no-one was expecting. It’s not a secret that wasn’t my view at the time...but that was a majority view. Then we had both the local elections and the European elections, and it was clear that the public did not want anything new and they saw in the Liberal Democrats a party that was very clear in its position.”
It wasn’t all bad though. There was that famous, much analysed, dinner at Nando’s. “Nando’s was a peak I think,” laughs Allen. “Nando’s was great!”
More seriously, she says that “if the Independent Group - Change UK was one little jigsaw piece that nudged us a little bit in the right direction then I’m proud of that and that was the role that we played.”
Moving to the fringes
The MPs all cite a shift away from the centre ground and towards the political fringes among their former parties as a reason for defecting. Berger says Labour has “gravitated towards the extreme” and “betrayed the values that led me to join in the first place”. She believes the horrendous antisemitic abuse she received from some members is an issue that stems right from the top. She says she has not spoken to Jeremy Corbyn since before Christmas 2017, and says the Labour leader “has to be the unluckiest anti-racist ever to have found himself sharing the kind of platforms that he has and some of the things he said”. Corbyn, she adds, has shown “not one iota” of remorse about her departure.
“People with some quite unpleasant views now feel very emboldened and empowered. They never saw me as ‘their kind of Conservative’”
The ex-Conservatives, too, feel their former parties have drifted towards the extremes. “When I first signed up to the Conservative party in 2009 there was really very clear wish to modernise, to come much more back to One Nation values, to be genuinely looking at things like climate change, to be wanting to embrace diversity,” says Wollaston. “I see all that has gone now.”
She feels that the shift is permanent “because the membership has also changed”. “They didn’t take action sufficiently quickly on the entryism from the UKIP fringe. And what you saw was the remnants of the Leave.EU Arron Banks kind of groupings directly targeting the constituencies of MPs who were moderate. People like me, who took a particular view of Remain, for example. They were actively asking people to join with the express purpose of deselecting us and bringing in that much more right-wing perspective.”
Gyimah observes: “The border between the Conservative party and UKIP and now the Brexit party is a very porous one. People in my constituency association, some of whom were quiet in the Cameron years, are now very emboldened and feel empowered and some of them have got, dare I say it, quite unpleasant views. They never saw me as ‘their kind’ of Conservative.”
Does he think that’s a racism issue? “I’ve tried to steer away from that all my political career. People have their own reasons for doing things. I guess there were some of them who just didn’t like the cut of my gib.”
Allen adds: “I do look across the Chamber and it doesn’t look like a party I’d be comfortable joining today. The Tory party we see in front of us now is not reflected in modern Britain.”
Lee, too, says he doesn’t miss sharing benches with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois. He says while people like that “are trying to do the best they think they can do”, he is “not so sure they’ve got a worldview.”
Wollaston can barely contain her criticism of other seeminglymoderate MPs now still in her former party. She says culture secretary Nicky Morgan should have quit the government “a long time ago”. “Obviously, it’s for Nicky Morgan to speak for herself, but I think a lot of us are rather disappointed that she seems to have changed her view as well.”
But Lee defends his friend. “I’m not disappointed in Nicky. Nicky’s just being consistent. Just consistent, the person I’ve always known. So I’m not disappointed in her. I’m probably more disappointed in people like Robert Buckland and a few others who I think must know. They must be holding their nose so tight.”
Even though they have become more regular in recent times, defections still have the power to shock Westminster. Though perhaps not in the case though of Gyimah. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jonny Oates reminded him recently of a journey back from Chequers during the Coalition years, when Gyimah was David Cameron’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. The two teams of ministers and their staff got separate buses back after the meeting. Gyimah was, he recalls, the only Conservative on the Liberal Democrat bus.
The Lib Dems have already managed to woo seven defectors, but it is clear the newcomers want others to join them. So who should we be putting our money on to be the next to jump ship? Heidi Allen’s bet is Stourbridge MP Margot James. “Put a fiver on it!” she tells The House. James no longer takes the Conservative whip. However, she did support Boris Johnson’s most recent Brexit deal. Sam Gyimah, however, tells us to stick our fiver on Richard Harrington, the MP for Watford. A former minister, Harrington voted against the Brexit programme motion on Tuesday evening.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.