The Times Interview: “The system feels broken. It’s woeful.”

Originally published in The Times, 6 April 2019

By Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester

The House of Commons is in uproar as MPs rush between lobbies, haranguing the Speaker over tied votes and scrabbling to work out precedents. Heidi Allen, stuck in the pandemonium, is an hour late for our interview and finally comes into Central Lobby, apologising profusely. “It’s woeful now, this is not how to run a country,” the interim leader of the Independent Group says. “When you come with a new pair of eyes from the outside you see it for what it is. You are supposed to be in awe of all this and nod your head and become part of the establishment. But then you see this chaos and you think how in the world is this ever normal? The system feels broken.”

Since the 44-year-old MP for South Cambridgeshire left the Conservative Party in February and joined two other former Tories and seven former Labour MPs to form the “Tiggers” she says she hasn’t had a moment of regret. “Every day I have felt free. We are all knackered from lack of sleep but I don’t have the tiredness that comes from feeling guilty or sweating over whether you are supporting the right team.”

Ms Allen, a former businesswoman, became an MP in 2015 and the dysfunctionality was clear to her from the start. “It’s not how you would run a business. I have been disappointed from day one. I expected this to be UK plc — smart, quick and dynamic. Instead it’s slow, laborious and hampered by the party-political structures that box you into corners.” In her view Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have both been too focused on their tribes since the referendum.

The Tory leader “puts the party first, it’s like her family. A prime minister should rise above everything and be the arbiter for the country. I understand you need party structures . . . but they are so hard, fixed and immovable, even on an average day, let alone a day of national crisis.”

The Commons is filling up with disaffected independents. This week Nick Boles resigned the Conservative whip. Ms Allen says that he would be welcome in the Independent Group, which last week applied to become a political party, Change UK. But it will have strict criteria for entry. “We have taken our time to put a constitution together setting out values and rules for behaviour. We are not a home for waifs and strays. We want people to actively want to join us.”

The group is in discussions with MPs from both sides. “I’ve had serious talks with half a dozen Tories. The majority of Labour conversations are with ex-Labour colleagues, I would say there are anything up to 20 . . . It’s not just MPs, we’ve been talking to peers and MEPs. There’s interest everywhere. We are walking as fast as we can but the ground is moving faster under us and in all directions so it’s hard to keep up.”

Liberal Democrat MPs have been supportive but the parties won’t merge. “The Lib Dems have been so grown up and said this isn’t about Lib Dem or the Independent Group, this is about the centre ground and the country is crying out for it. What is really important is that this is new and fresh. We want new people to join. With no disrespect to any political parties, we don’t want your baggage.”

The first hurdle is to be accepted by the Electoral Commission. “It feels a bit like a planning application, we are waiting to hear. They want to be certain we are genuine.” The fledgling party has no shortage of would-be recruits. “We are being inundated with potential candidates. I must be getting two [applications] every 15 minutes. My staff are filtering them into a folder, I have chief execs of NHS trusts, ex-senior civil servants, Ofsted inspectors, captains of industry. It feels as if we have unleashed something. The UK is in trouble, here is a new party which is trying to change how we run it.”

The finances are beginning to look good too. “The majority of money has come from crowdfunding, my understanding is it’s six figures. That is [made up of] Joe Bloggses’ ten pounds. We are getting considerable interest from businesses but we are being squeaky clean.”

There was surprise when Ms Allen was chosen as interim leader rather than Chuka Umunna. “We talked about it as grown-ups,” the former Tory MP says. “I hadn’t thought it would be me, I am the newest to parliament. I thought Chuka would be [the leader]. . . I probably have the least political baggage, having not been embedded for 30 years in a party and coming from business.”

In any case, it will be more of a joint enterprise. “In any organisation you need a chair and a chief exec; one is around the team and the organisation and its culture and then there is the day-to-day running. Between the two of us we have male and female, ex-Labour, ex-Tory, I am from a rural shire constituency, Chuka is from an inner city. I am probably more the chairwoman, the day-to-day is the spokesperson role and that is Chuka.”

The 11 members of the group form a natural alternative shadow cabinet, with expertise in areas from medicine to law and foreign affairs.

Ms Allen, who was inspired to go into politics after watching the London riots of 2011, has developed an expertise in welfare policy and successfully campaigned for changes to universal credit. She knows that Change UK needs to be more than just the anti-Brexit party. “We would deserve to fail if we were that. We have to respond to the question of how people feel so disenfranchised. I grew up outside Barnsley so I am not the metropolitan elite. We are not just a Labour breakaway. We are unashamedly centre — centre left and centre right.”

If the European elections take place, and Change UK’s approval comes through from the Electoral Commission, the party aims to stand candidates in every area. “If we had time then we certainly would,” Ms Allen says. “It is going to be a Brexit pseudo-referendum. We will be the main Remain party — it should help us.”

A general election would be harder and it is in her view the last thing the country needs. “You would have to be realistic about your ability to find the right candidates. We’ve got all the data and polling about which constituencies are very persuaded by the idea of a new party and have given up on the two big ones. It’s a sizeable chunk of the country but we’d rather do things well and find the right candidates for the right seats and have a message right than just carte blanche 650 and off we go.” There could eventually be some kind of non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems. “We are certainly not going to fight each other. We will find a sensible way through.”

The two main parties have become too extreme, Ms Allen suggests. “So many sensible colleagues still in the Tory party, who have been around for longer than I have, have said, ‘Heidi, this is what happens in the Tory party, every so often we eat ourselves, we get in a terrible mess, we move to the right, the opposition gets in, we realise the error of our ways, we get a new dynamic David Cameron or whoever it might be comes and rescues us and then we’re back in the game. You’ve just got to wait for that.’ I’m sorry but now is the time when your country needs you, not when your party has got round to sorting itself out.”

She is also “bitterly disappointed” by how wedded MPs are to their jobs. “It’s a precious role. . . you have that position to do the best that you can and when your time is gone it’s like a rugby ball you pass it along to the next person, but there are so many MPs who can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Her constituency doesn’t seem to want her to give up yet. She has 700 volunteers signed up. “The reaction has been incredible, I got about 3,000 positive emails and 45 unhappy ones.” The only “very unpleasant” message she received was after she spoke about her decision to have an abortion for medical reasons when she was younger. “People expect you to have an armadillo shell if you’re MP but I’m not going to pretend to be I’m something that I’m not. A lot of women have been through this.”

She doesn’t want her party just to be touchy-feely influencers. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think we could [get into government] but there is no naivety here, this is David and Goliath stuff. It’s not just a different party and different policies, we want to change the way politics is conducted.”

The SDP tried and failed to break the mould of politics in the 1980s but she thinks things are different now. “We’ve had the seismic shift of Brexit, which has proven that the big party system doesn’t work, and we live in a modern world of IT and social media. We have tools to communicate and we have to be smart and make the most of that.”

On her office wall there is a poster with a Thatcher slogan: “If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and would achieve nothing.” She explains: “I was an only child and I grew up with powerful women. I had a very strong opinionated German mother, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. It’s not about policies, it’s about being strong, no nonsense and putting the country first.”

After university Ms Allen worked for various companies before taking over her parents’ business selling classic-motorcycle paints. She learnt to match colours by eye. As a specialist what colour should the new party be? “We’re sticking with black and white, I quite like it,” she says. “My husband said ‘black and white means we’ll tell you it straight’ and that’s exactly what we want to do.”