The mobile phones of Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry were “melting” in the 24 hours before their departure. But there were two calls that never came.
Even as speculation mounted about the future of the three MPs, Downing Street and the Tory whips’ office never got in touch. When David Gauke texted Heidi Allen, he was the only cabinet minister to contact any of them.
Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, said it was proof enough that the party thought she was a lost cause. “And then the only conclusion I can come to is that this is physical evidence of how dysfunctional the party has become,” Allen said of the lack of contact. “We are not protected from entryism or yellow jackets in the street and we are not protected from the top down.” Soubry did reveal later that David Cameron had sent a message to the MPs as they prepared to announce their defection. “Is it too late to persuade you to stay?” he asked.
Journalists were also bombarding the three MPs with texts and calls but these went unanswered. On Wednesday morning one replied to a text message asking about their intentions with a smiley face emoji. None had sought to quell the speculation in SW1.
At one point, three were believed to be four. Phillip Lee, the former justice minister, who quit to back a second referendum, was widely considered to be part of the departing gang until reporters in Westminster discovered that he had, in fact, switched off his phone because he was at the cinema with his wife.
Behind the scenes, Soubry was the first to become involved in discussions about a possible new grouping, due to her closeness to Chuka Umunna, her co-chair of the parliamentary group on EU relations. Allen was the last but on Wednesday she was the one who spoke with the least regret about leaving the Conservative party.
Although the group has been months in the making, at the final stages the three MPs insisted they had not been tipped off that Umunna and his Labour colleagues were planning their breakaway on Monday.
“We didn’t know about it all,” Allen said. But she said there was no hesitation once it happened. “Three of us then thought right, OK – when?”
Soubry said Umunna had “held out the baton”. She said she planned to hold out the one she had taken from him – to other one-nation Conservatives.
The trio, who call themselves the three amigos, had originally planned to leave their party next week, before the next vital Brexit vote but then decided they had to move faster than that.
“We thought it could be drowned out,” Allen said. “So we thought we’d move quickly. It just felt natural, and to be honest all of it feels so natural and so exciting. We just wanted to get on with it.”
None of the three are natural rebels, though Wollaston’s Westminster office was once used by the Social Democratic party to plot their own breakaway. Yet all have become serial rebels over Brexit legislation, with Allen even expressing regret on Wednesday that she was no longer a transgressive in her new grouping.
Just as Lee’s cinema trip had sown confusion, the Labour splitters had also slightly been caught on the hop by the defection of Joan Ryan, the Enfield North MP, who only informed them she was quitting Labour to join them at 7pm the night before. “It wasn’t a setup – we had no idea,” one said.
The Conservative resignation letters were finally sent an hour before both party leaders were due at the dispatch box. Fifteen minutes before PMQs the seven original MPs were already packed in together and Luciana Berger, who serves Liverpool Wavertree, took a smiling selfie on the green benches with her colleagues.
Then the three former Tory MPs entered the chamber of the Commons, striding purposefully towards the opposition benches.
The Labour defector Angela Smith applauded and her former Labour colleague Gavin Shuker stood up to make way as Allen settled in next to Berger. The DUP’s Ian Paisley, at the end of the bench, looked studiously at his phone.
Yet the atmosphere in the Commons in the midst of such high drama was strangely muted. When both leaders entered the chamber, there was almost total silence from both benches behind them.
During the exchanges not a single MP mentioned the breakaway, a pact of mutual embarrassment, though Theresa May attacked Jeremy Corbyn for the claims made by Ryan about “institutional antisemitism” in the party. No one from the Independent Group attempted to catch the Speaker’s eye to ask a question themselves.
Few on the Tory benches believe interventions by the prime minister would have done much to stop the three from departing. “Look at their statements and their letter today. Does anyone really think that it would have make a difference?” one Tory source said.
“The chief whip will probably be pleased,” another cabinet source said. “Three less rebels to trouble him, and it changes nothing about the arithmetic.”
The mood on the Tories’ WhatsApp group was more conciliatory. Nicky Morgan, once a close ally of the three, sent a warm message, as did the Brexiter and former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith. He said the group should be welcomed back into the party in the future.
Tobias Ellwood, the defence minister, said their departure “raises serious questions about our brand, our core mission and ownership of the very soul of our party” which he urged the leadership to address.
“If we have any ambitions of winning support beyond our base we must remain a centre right, inclusive, vibrant and progressive party,” he said.
Another Tory MP said: “Their criticism of the PM’s craven weakness in the face of the ERG and the drift to the right, the betrayal of the burning injustice agenda is very resonant. And a lot of people are feeling that, maybe 200 MPs. If the PM doesn’t take back control from the ERG she is toast.”
Yet other Tory MPs dismissed their former colleagues’ charges that their departure was due to the party’s lurch to the right and see the move as being solely motivated by Brexit. “The party is changing because of Brexit, that’s true. It has to if it’s to win in the north,” one MP said.
“It’s not rightwing though, the facts don’t speak to that. We’re capping energy prices, sugar tax, banning things, it’s essentially a social democratic party – much to the distaste of many of us, actually. This is purely and solely about Brexit.”
Wollaston and Soubry had been facing deselection efforts, which some former Tory colleagues were certain would have succeeded. “They weren’t going to get selected as Conservative candidates anyway. Anna certainly wasn’t,” one said. “They had nothing to lose.”
Allen said her private messages from sympathetic Tory colleagues had been touching but told their own story about the state of the party. “My phone is melting. But in the sea of notifications is only good stuff,” she said. “Colleagues are waving and winking and blowing kisses across the chamber. It’s phenomenal. Of the messages I’ve managed to see what has been common throughout is – don’t leave me with them. Which I think tells its own story.”