Independent Tories have fighting chance to win in election

by Nick Kent | 09.09.2019

At least 13 of the 22 whipless Tory MPs are contemplating standing as independents in the next general election. In the most unpredictable election in over 40 years, some could defy the odds and win.

Some of the biggest names in the Conservative Party – including Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Dominic Grieve and Rory Stewart – seem determined to find a way to stay in the House of Commons. They are considering both standing as independents – and joining an existing party (perhaps the Lib Dems) or possibly creating their own party. One advantage of being part of a party is the party as well as the individual candidates can spend money in an election.

Independents don’t usually win Westminster seats; in general elections (as opposed to by-elections) voters tend to be tribal and back their usual party’s candidate. But the cataclysmic shock of the 2016 referendum result has seen the nation divided around Leave/Remain rather than party lines. Party affiliation has also become more fluid in recent decades with Labour and the Conservatives attracting a declining share of the national vote.

Last week Boris Johnson removed the whip from 21 MPs. Of these, 12 have indicated they wish to stay in the House of Commons. The other nine – including Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames and Justine Greening – have either said they will retire or haven’t given a view yet.

Meanwhile, Rudd resigned at the weekend. She has said she won’t stand in her current seat of Hastings and Rye, but would like to stand elsewhere. There’s speculation she could run in Soames’ nearby Mid Sussex seat. It may be possible for other independent Conservatives to run in seats vacated by colleagues who retire, such as Clarke’s Rushcliffe constituency.

Running the numbers

Name Constituency L/R 2016 Con 2017LabLibGrn
Dominic Grieve Beaconsfield 51R 36,55912,01644481396
Alistair BurtBedfordshire North East 53L39,139 18,2773693 1215
Sam GyimahEast Surrey 54L35,31011,39661971100
Antoinette SandbachEddisbury 52L29,19217,2502804785
Margot James Halesowen & Rowley Regis66L31,01217,759859440
David GaukeHertfordshire South West54R35,12815,57870781576
Rory StewartPenrith & the Border55L28,07812,16836411029
Caroline NokesRomsey & Southampton North 54R28,6689,61410,622953
Philip HammondRunnymede & Weybridge51R31,43613,38637651347
Ed VaizeyWantage54R34,45917,07992341446
Stephen HammondWimbledon73R23,94618,32474721231
Steve Brine Winchester61R29,7296,00719,730846

Election results 2017 from House of Commons Library
Constituency 2016 referendum results are estimates produced by Dr Chris Hanretty

Looking at the first dozen Tory “rebels”, what are their chances? (See table) All of them sit for strongly Tory seats; all but Stephen Hammond in Wimbledon secured over half the votes cast at the 2017 election. Seven of their constituencies voted Remain and five voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. The highest Leave vote (66%) was in Margot James’ seat of Halesowen in the West Midlands and the lowest (27%) was in Wimbledon.

In the most recent nationwide vote, the European Parliament elections in May, the Remain vote (Change UK, Lib Dem & Green) was greater than the Leave vote (Brexit Party, Conservatives & UKIP) in five of these 12 constituencies, most strikingly in Wimbledon and Winchester. These results do need to be viewed with caution because of the low turnout, the confusing position of Labour on Europe and because those elections were not deciding the future government of the country.

To stand the best chance of winning, the independent Tories would need to be backed by the broader Remain Alliance, so that they did not face a challenge from the Lib Dems or the Green Party. This means they might have to back a People’s Vote – and not all have. The reluctance of Labour to back a Remain Alliance would be a problem too, although only Halesowen and Wimbledon look winnable for Labour.

All constituencies are different and the standing of the independent Tories in their seats will vary. Those with the best chance will be in seats that voted strongly Remain, where Labour is less attractive because of Jeremy Corbyn and where the Lib Dem vote will swing behind them.

That points to seats in the south of England such as South West Hertfordshire (Gauke), Wantage (Ed Vaizey), Beaconsfield (Grieve) and Winchester (Steve Brine). Halesowen because of the higher Labour vote and Penrith & the Border because of its greater number of pensioners look the most difficult, but both are represented by high profile MPs in James and Stewart respectively who might just bring off a surprise.

Defying Johnson by standing against the Conservatives would end any chance of the whipless Tories returning to the fold but it isn’t such a crazy idea as it would have been in past general elections. These are not normal times in British politics.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon