By Arj Singh
It’s been another seismic week in politics as the Tory “three amigos” Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen sensationally quit the party to join eight Labour defectors in parliament’s new centrist Independent Group.
If you’re wondering why and how the trio came to jump ship, and what it means for beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit, look no further…
Why did they go?
The prime minister
The mood among Remainer Tories has been especially dire since May last month chose to respond to the crushing defeat of her Brexit deal by seeking to appease her Eurosceptic MPs with fresh negotiations with the EU, instead of reaching out across party lines for a compromise solution.
Conversations with pro-EU Tories, some of who had already quit as ministers in the hope of forcing compromise, often took a dark turn in recent weeks as they feared May was pivoting towards a no-deal Brexit.
Several warned they would quit the party if no-deal became government policy, but Wollaston rang alarm bells last week when she said May was already giving that impression by running down the clock to exit day on March 29.
In the end, Soubry said the group concluded the PM had been “bullied into submission” by the Tory Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG), a right-wing “anti-EU awkward squad” which was now running the Tories from “top to toe”, setting back years of modernisation under David Cameron.
“The truth is the battle is over and the other side has won,” she said.
As all of this has played out, Tory MPs advocating another referendum, a softer Brexit or simply opposing no-deal have been met by a nationally-orchestrated right wing campaign of ‘entryism’ by hardline Brexiteers into their local associations.
Dubbed a “purple Momentum” after both Ukip and the pro-Corbyn Labour grassroots movement, the new members have been attempting to oust MPs in Leave-backing seats – like Wollaston and Soubry – who said their “tyranny” has forced other Conservatives to keep quiet because they fear deselection.
One ex-cabinet minister facing a possible vote of no confidence told HuffPost UK “this is a very disturbing and new phenomenon” but “an inevitable consequence of bringing ideology into a pragmatic party”.
While Allen has not faced the same issues in her Remain-backing seat, it was upmost in the minds of all three MPs as they made their decision.
How did it happen?
Soubry, Allen and Wollaston take their place with the Independent Group on the Commons benches pic.twitter.com/Nkq3qNcVnu
— Ned Simons (@nedsimons) February 20, 2019
One popular question has been doing the rounds in Westminster since the split: Would this have happened if May hadn’t cancelled the February Commons recess?
Certainly the relatively quiet news schedule on Monday helped the Labour MPs decide it was time to jump in a move which surprised the Tory women, but spurred them into a decision to go within “a couple of days”.
Allen said the three MPs were already “mates” who had leaned on each other when they were “low and struggling”, fostering a “tightness and the trust” in the group that meant their plans did not leak.
It was, however, “staggering” that no one from Downing Street or the whips office tried to persuade them to stay in the party, she said, adding: “The only conclusion I can then come to is this is physical evidence of how dysfunctional the party has become.”
Since the defection, Allen’s phone has however been “melting” in a “sea of notifications”, while there was support as the 11 splitters took up their seats on opposition benches during prime minister’s questions in the Commons.
“It was so lovely, I had colleagues waving and winking and blowing kisses across the chamber,” Allen said.
Meanwhile, Labour MP John Grogan, who had been sandwiched alone into a corner by the new group, stressed he had not joined them.
“I am just a stubborn Yorkshireman not keen to give up my usual seat,” he said.
Could more go?
Allen named Tory former ministers Phillip Lee and Justine Greening as potentially next in line, saying they would “probably, possibly, maybe” quit.
Both have long-backed the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum and are close allies of the “three amigos”.
The ex-cabinet minister, who did not want to be named, meanwhile said they would “take it all in stages” but “keep my options open” if their local constituency passes a vote of no confidence.
They also warned that if the party elects a hard Brexit leader to succeed May who pursues a “deranged” no-deal or hard Brexit, they would also consider going.
“If this party is finally, totally losing its marbles, then yes there may come a point where I can’t stay in it because it’s no longer in any way corresponding to my beliefs, I’m a Tory,” they told HuffPost.
Allen, however, warned prospective splitters the group do not want “bandwagon jumpers”.
What does it mean for Brexit?
Strangely, despite Brexit being a major driver of the splits, the breakaway is unlikely to affect the withdrawal process much in the short-term.
Almost all the TIG MPs were already defying their party whip to back a second referendum or oppose the government’s Brexit policies, so the numbers in key ‘high noon’ votes on February 27 are unlikely to change much.
Soubry, however, said she hoped the Tory trio’s defection would help encourage ministers who want to block a no-deal Brexit to quit and vote against the government next week.
“It will give them the courage next week to do what, frankly, some of them should have done a long time ago,” she added.
What does it mean for Theresa May?
Allen said their resignations should come as a “wake-up call” to the prime minister that she finally needed to take on and defeat the ERG. Her majority is now wafer-thin and in single figures – around eight or nine with DUP support.
One loyal Tory MP said the defection was “not life-threatening” but added he was worried they could hold the government to ransom by blocking non-Brexit legislation “that we want to get through”.
However the three MPs admit that in the ultimate crunch, they would support May’s government in a no-confidence vote, claiming that the country does not want an election. It is also hard to escape the fact the splitters may also face a wipeout in a snap poll.
“A general election would be the worst thing at -895 hours from Brexit,” Allen said.
“Given what’s happened in both parties this week I think (they) would be utterly foolish to try and push the nuclear button on a general election, because their support is clearly on the edge.”