What now for Change UK?
New political party made up of disaffected Labour and Tory MPs loses over half its members after disastrous election results
Change UK are to split just four months after 11 disgruntled Labour and Tory MPs broke away to form a new party they hoped would reshape British politics.
Following its dismal performance at last month’s European parliamentary elections, it was announced that six MPs have decided to leave the party, with the former Conservative business minister and anti-Brexit campaigner Anna Soubry taking over as leader of the remaining five members.
Former interim leader Heidi Allen said the leaving MPs were “immensely proud” of Change UK but would be “returning to supporting each other as an independent grouping of MPs”.
Despite launching to much fanfare in February as the Independent Group, Change UK as it would later be known, failed to secure a single MEP last month, and won just 3.4% of the vote.
Their poor performance was further highlighted by the success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which launched around the same time, and the Liberal Democrats, who Change UK had hoped to replace as the party of choice for centrist Remain voters.
With a string of high-profile MEP candidates including the former Conservative minister Stephen Dorrell, and the journalists Rachel Johnson and Gavin Else “it had hoped to become the catalyst for a major political realignment, attracting a string of other recruits and becoming the rallying point for remainers”, says The Guardian.
But it was beset by problems almost from the beginning, suffering a “number of gaffes” during the campaign says the London Evening Standard.
“This included its lead Scottish candidate quitting and urging voters to back the Lib Dems instead and Joan Ryan’s ‘look at your hands speech’ being compared to The Office character David Brent. Meanwhile, two of its initial candidates resigned over offensive social media posts and the party was roundly mocked over its tour bus design, which was compared to a Microsoft Word document”, says the paper.
Aside from poor branding it was also “beset by disagreements over strategy including a spat over a pro-Remain pact for the European elections”, says the Daily Mirror.
In the days before the European elections Soubry publicly slammed interim leader Heidi Allen for suggesting voters tactically back the Lib Dems.
“I think it is rather bizarre for an interim leader on the eve of poll to tell people essentially not to vote for their party” she said. “You do not stand candidates and then say to people ‘we are going through a complete farce please don’t vote for them”.
BBC political correspondent Ben Wright said there had clearly been turmoil in the party’s ranks for number of weeks.
“It has been obvious that there was an internal disagreement over where the party should be positioning itself, what its long term tactics should be, whether it should be cosying up to the Lib Dems or maintaining itself as an independent party,” he said.
After the disastrous results Allen hinted at a possible merger with the Lib Dems, saying: “This partisan thing completely passes me by when I look across Europe, they seem to do pretty well with coalitions. “I would hope as a collective, let’s call us a collective, somewhere in the middle with other like-minded colleagues.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader and leadership candidate, Jo Swinson, has invited all pro-Remain politicians to join their party.
While it remains to be seen whether the likes of Allen and the former Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who was the group’s spokesman, formally join the Lib Dems in the future, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman says the group of five MPs who have chosen to stay under the Change UK banner “doesn't want anything to do with the Liberal Democrats and the feeling is largely mutual: people like Joan Ryan who chaired the No to AV campaign, voted for every authoritarian measure the last Labour government came up with, defence hawks like Mike Gapes who support Trident and still think the Iraq war was a good idea.”
“It’s a measure of the antipathy between the Liberal Democrats and the new kid on the block that the biggest laughs Ed Davey got at the first Liberal Democrat hustings were when he told activists that he was dubious about Change UK from the get-go “because I've met them”, adding for good measure that they were “nice people - but not liberals”. In addition to Gapes and Ryan, Chris Leslie and Anna Soubry are largely of this view.”