Heidi Allen was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. She faced a tough set of questions, mainly because of how bad things have got for Change UK in such a short period of time. Asked about her defecting to the Lib Dems, she said she wouldn’t be. But her plan for what to do instead sounded bleak:
“Will I stand again in South Cambridgeshire, my constituency, as Change UK? Whatever format, let’s hope we know, depends when the new general election comes, later rather than sooner. If we’ve managed to bring together other MPs from the House of Commons, the format might be slightly different.”
I don’t really blame her for sounding vague – it wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the Independent Group first came together, and particularly when the three Tory MPs defected to it, there was a sense that they were about to change politics for the better, for good. I certainly felt optimistic about the whole thing. Unfortunately, it has evolved into a complete nightmare. If you had scripted it all before it happened as a long form Thick Of It special, most of what has taken place would seem too extreme to be funny. The barcode logo. The terrible bus. Funny tinge. Chuka saying the reason people should vote Change instead of Lib Dems is because people might want to support a party that is anti-Brexit that did not bring austerity to the county – while standing right next to Anna Soubry.
What next for Change UK’s eleven MPs? They look set for a very bad result on Thursday – probably no MEPs whatsoever, which given what they were set up to do, will be pretty damning. It seems obvious that they will then need to eventually melt into the Lib Dems.
They won’t want to do it immediately for fear of looking desperate. Yet the longer they wait, the less leverage they will have whenever they do defect. For instance, had they just immediately joined the Lib Dems back in February, they could have claimed to be responsible for the poll surge and local election results. They would have found that getting their people into positions within the rightly infamous maze of Lib Dem machinery was much easier as a result. If they joined today, however, it would be from a much weakened position. But the longer they wait, the weaker their position continues to become.
The worst of it is, a prolonged wait for the Change UK MPs to join will be bad for the Lib Dems as well. If the eleven joined today, a few of them could enter the leadership contest and at the very least, make them a lot more meaningful and robust. Given they’ll need to prevaricate following the likely bad result on Thursday, they won’t even be in the fold for that. The Lib Dems could also immediately solidify their position as the one anti-Brexit party that has a real chance of stopping it from happening if their parliamentary party doubled in size next week.
Sadly, I cannot see this unfolding in a way that is neat or beneficial to the anti-Brexit cause. Much more likely is that the drama will simply go on for a while as Change tries and fails to re-launch itself, acting as an unnecessary drag on the unforeseen Lib Dem surge.