God save us from a world in which our politicians cannot change their minds. Time and again I have found that ordinary voters not only respect MPs who publicly switch position on one issue or another – they positively welcome it.
And yet our political culture is in thrall to the worship of consistency: “Ah, but ten years ago on Twitter you said something entirely different to your views today!” The ultimate political slam-dunk is to prove that someone has, presumably after considering the evidence, changed their views.
To those who not only change their minds but change their parties as well, the consequences are bleak. Political apostasy, like the spiritual kind, is the unforgiveable sin. If you joined a party at the age of 15, then obviously, 30 years on, you must have exactly the same views and principles.
And even if the party you joined has changed significantly, well tough – you made your bed when you were a teenager, now you have to lie in it. And keep paying your membership dues.
Defectors are the very worst as far as every party is concerned. There’s a kind of unwritten agreement among the parties that anyone who crosses the floor will receive both barrels in terms of character assassination – all the better for maintaining party discipline, which is, after all, in everyone’s interests. My favourite barb aimed at a Labour councillor in Glasgow who defected to the SNP was “He’s just increased the average IQ in both parties.”
So where does that leave Dr Sarah Wollaston, the former Conservative and Independent Group MP who is the latest to join the ranks of the Liberal Democrats? Wollaston has received rave reviews since before she entered parliament. A local GP, she became the first MP to have been selected via an open primary, during David Cameron’s breathless efforts to modernise his party in the run-up to the 2010 general election. She quickly established herself as A Good Thing and became chair of the influential Health Select Committee and also of the even more prestigious Liaison Committee, which regularly scrutinises the prime minister.
Yet Dr Wollaston, while undoubtedly an independent-minded MP, isn’t just unafraid of changing her mind on policy – she has made a career out of 180 degree handbraketurns. And while the public admire people who admit their mistakes, in Dr Wollaston’s case, the evidence is that her convictions are not so much flexible as rooted in very shallow ground. In this respect she is far more representative of the average voter. But do we really need politicians whose convictions ebb and flow with the breeze?
For example, Dr Wollaston was one of the first to sponsor a Ten Minute Rule Bill by her parliamentary colleague, Chris Skidmore, in 2011, which called for the law to be changed in order that any MP elected under a particular party label would be forced to resign their seat in the event of their defecting to a different party. In Dr Wollaston’s case, this would have meant two parliamentary by-elections within a year, the first when she left the Conservative Party to join Chuka Umunna’s Independent Group, and – assuming she won that one – a second by-election when she followed Chuka out of the Tiggers to join the LibDems.
Ah, but that was then and this is now. Except for the tiny matter of the Leave campaign in 2016. Wollaston by then was an established Eurosceptic, voting for a backbench attempt to trigger an In/Out referendum in 2011 and subsequently voting to cut Britain’s contributions to the EU. When David Cameron finally called the 2016 referendum and returned from his renegotiations [sic] with his EU partners on a new deal for Britain, Wollaston blasted his efforts as “a threadbare deal that has highlighted our powerlessness to effect institutional change. If this is the very best that can be grudgingly conceded when EU leaders express concern at the prospect of a British exit, what hope is there of any meaningful reform in the future?”
She added: “My vote will count for no more than anyone else’s but, for what it’s worth, I am optimistic for our future, I believe the balance of our national interest now lies outside the EU and I will be voting to leave.”
And then, weeks before polling she changed her mind and announced she would vote Remain after all. If she had left it at that, the conversion would have been dramatic enough. But she didn’t. At first she accepted the result of the 2016 vote – a canny move since a majority of her constituents voted Leave. She even voted with the vast majority of MPs to trigger Article 50, setting Britain on a course to leave the EU, deal or no deal, two years later.
And then she left her own party in order to join a vehicle whose sole raison d’être was to stop Brexit from happening at all.
That’s quite a journey for someone to embark upon. Normally such Damascene conversions happen beyond the glare of publicity, because they happen to (mostly younger) people who are still finding their way in life, discovering who they are and what they believe in. Once they have a clearer idea of that, then they look round for a vehicle that will help them achieve their aims. By the time most of them get into parliament, they’re pretty settled on all of that.
But to have swung between two polar positions on the EU in such a dramatic way, to have supported forcing defecting MPs to stand for immediate re-election except when it applied to her, to have left her party of choice not once but twice in a matter of months… well, the question must be asked: is Dr Wollaston done? Can we expect, a few months or weeks down the line, a repudiation of the Liberal Democrats? A public embrace of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps?
One swallow does not a summer make, and all that. Dr Wollaston’s conduct doesn’t in itself mean that open primaries are a poor way to choose future MPs. But it’s probably worth noting that another candidate chosen by open primary was Heidi Allen.