Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, departs after speaking following a special meeting of the European Council on the Brexit withdrawal agreement in Brussels, Belgium (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)  

May Suffers First Brexit Defections as Three Tories Quit

(Bloomberg) --

Prime Minister Theresa May was hit by three high-profile defections from her Conservative Party on Wednesday as Brexit cracks open the mold of mainstream British politics.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen will now sit alongside the eight former Labour politicians who quit their party to form the new “Independent Group” in Parliament earlier this week. They warned more Tories could follow, and urged ministers to quit May’s government in order to vote to stop an economically damaging no-deal Brexit.

May Suffers First Brexit Defections as Three Tories Quit

The three resignations are a major political blow to the prime minister, reducing her already slim ruling majority and threatening to erode party discipline in the run-up to a series of crucial parliamentary votes on her Brexit plan.

May is due to head to Brussels later on Wednesday as she scrambles to get fresh concessions from the European Union in order to put a reformed divorce deal to a vote in the House of Commons as soon as next week.

It’s unclear how the new Independent Group of MPs will conduct themselves, and whether, for example, they will all vote the same way on key policies such as Brexit. The ex-Tories had already been voting against May’s divorce strategy.

‘Final Straw’

Some of the group’s members want to become a new center-ground political movement to rival the mainstream Tory and Labour parties. There were signals, however, that the three Tories may not formally join the new grouping as full members.

What is clear is that May’s approach to Brexit drove the Tory trio to give up the party she leads, and there’s speculation that others could follow.

“The final straw for us has been this Government’s disastrous handling of Brexit,” Soubry, Wollaston and Allen wrote wrote in a joint letter to May. “Following the EU referendum of 2016, no genuine effort was made to build a cross party, let alone a national consensus to deliver Brexit.”

They criticized May for trying to placate hardline Brexit-backers in her party, and abandoning the interests of the 48 percent of voters who backed staying in the EU in the referendum.

“The country deserves better,” the three newly independent MPs said. “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 defections don’t immediately increase the chances of a general election. A national vote at this stage would probably be bad for these MPs, who don’t have a party, a leader or a policy platform. If anything, the effect of the creation of the Independent Group will be to reduce the number of MPs who would back a No Confidence motion against the government, because of the reduction of Labour numbers.

Speaking at a press conference in London, Allen said she expected more Conservatives to quit the party. Wollaston and Soubry said they hope ministers in the government will have the courage to resign next week in order to try to stop a no-deal departure from the EU.

Next week Parliament is due to vote on either May’s deal or what should happen if there’s no deal. Wollaston said ministers who’ve talked about resigning in order to vote against a no-deal departure should “stand up for what they know is right for this country and not allow no deal to go ahead.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.