In a devastating critique of Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, the three MPs said the Tories had lurched to the right, adopting Ukip policies and pursuing a hard Brexit.
Their move reduces May’s already tenuous working majority to eight, raising still more questions over her authority amid rumours that there could be further Tory defections to come.
In a letter to the prime minister, they wrote: “We no longer feel we can remain in the party of a government whose policies and priorities are so firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP.
“Brexit has re-defined the Conservative party – undoing all the efforts to modernise it. There has been a dismal failure to stand up to the hardline ERG, which operates openly as a party within a party, with its own leader, whip and policy.
The Independent Group was formed on Monday by seven former Labour MPs, including Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie. Joan Ryanbecame the eighth MP to quit Labour and join the group on Tuesday night. They said they felt it necessary to leave Labour because of the leadership’s Brexit policy and failure to tackle antisemitism in the party.
In a statement, May said she was disappointed by the decision of the three to quit the party. “I am saddened by this decision – these are people who have given dedicated service to our party over many years, and I thank them for it,” she said.
“Of course, the UK’s membership of the EU has been a source of disagreement both in our party and our country for a long time. Ending that membership after four decades was never going to be easy. But by delivering on our manifesto commitment and implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country. And in doing so, we can move forward together towards a brighter future.”
May said she was determined the Conservative would still offer “decent, moderate and patriotic politics that the people of this country deserve.”
In their letter, Wollaston, Soubry and Allen said the government’s handling of Brexit had been “disastrous” and said no genuine effort had been made to build consensus.
“Instead of seeking to heal the divisions or to tackle the underlying causes of Brexit, the priority was to draw up ‘red lines’,” they said. “The 48% were not only sidelined, they were alienated.
“The country deserves better. We believe there is a failure of politics in general, not just in the Conservative party but in both main parties as they move to the fringes, leaving millions of people with no representation. Our politics needs urgent and radical reform and we are determined to play our part.”
The group said they intended to sit as independents, like the eight MPs who have also quit the Labour. “There will be times when we will support the government, for example, on measures to strengthen our economy, security and improve our public services,” the three MPs said. “We will continue to work constructively, locally and nationally, on behalf of our constituents.”
Soubry, Wollaston and Allen entered the chamber of the House of Commons together and went to their new colleagues on the opposition benches. All eleven MPs sat together during an occasionally surreal prime minister’s questions, where both May and Corbyn studiously ignored the defections in their exchanges.
A Labour source said that the defections meant that “The Independent Group has now become a Tory-Establishment Coalition.” The source added: “What unites the 11 MPs is their business as usual support for austerity, corporate tax cuts and big money corrupting politics.”
The Independent Group tweeted to welcome the three Conservative MPs to the
party, stating: “Both our parties are broken. We are going to #ChangePolitics
for the better.”
Soubry is a former government minister who sat in David Cameron’s cabinet, while Wollaston is chair of the Commons health and social care committee.
Allen, who was elected in 2015, recently embarked on an “anti-poverty tour” around Britain with the former Labour MP Frank Field.
Their departure from the Conservatives leaves May with an even slimmer Commons majority as the prime minister attempts to win support for her Brexit deal in the coming weeks. The Independent Group now has more members than May’s confidence and supply partners – the DUP.
Phillip Lee, who quit as justice minister to back a second referendum, had also been tipped as a potential Tory departure but ruled out the move on Wednesday morning.
Lee, the chair of Right to Vote campaign for a new referendum, said he had warned the prime minister of possible defections if she did not respond to their letter asking to meet. “I’m certainly not leaving the Conservative party but I could understand if others did,” he told Sky News.
On Tuesday night, another vehement critic of Theresa May’s Brexit policy, Sam Gyimah, who also resigned as a minister over the government’s position on Brexit, ruled out joining the Independent Group formed by seven ex-Labour MPs who quit their party on Monday.
“I hugely admire Luciana Berger’s brave stance against antisemitism. But, ultimately, this is a Labour party matter and is nothing to do with me,” he said.
Others who have previously been critical of the party’s approach to Brexit, including Nick Boles and Antoinette Sandbach, both ruled out quitting the party.