In a time of exciting news and surprising events, Dr Philip Lee’s defection to the Liberal Democrats was strikingly expected. None of his colleagues looked shocked when he crossed the floor, and there was no call like the heartfelt “Oh Nick, don’t go…” which rang out in the hope of keeping Nick Boles on board.
Everybody knew the defection was coming for the good reason that Lee told everybody earlier in the year that he felt “politically homeless” and that he would “spend the summer” thinking about defecting to the Liberal Democrats.
It wasn’t an exercise in subtlety – and the Government got the message. Effectively at that point he wrote himself out of the role of unhappy backbencher who might rebel, and into the status of a defection press release in search of a date. Once it’s clear you’re just seeking the optimum time for disruption and/or fame, people discount it and move on.
The last couple of years have been visibly uncomfortable for the Bracknell MP. Like the majority of Conservative MPs, he voted Remain, but during the referendum campaign itself he was at least outwardly unequivocal that “if the country votes to leave, I will represent the public’s view and vote accordingly”.
But unlike most of his Remain-supporting colleagues (and indeed many other Remain voters) who managed to reconcile themselves to the outcome, however, he struggled to fulfil that pledge, and appeared genuinely conflicted about how to reflect his dislike of the new reality. After resigning from the Government in order to oppose it in a vote, he ended up abstaining. He kept up an increasingly vocal and increasingly anti-Brexit campaign from the backbenches, and lost a confidence vote in his local association in June.
Evidently he felt – and feels – extremely strongly about EU membership, to the extent that while his resignation letter speaks of concerns about the manner of leaving the EU, he has opted to defect to the party which most strongly opposes leaving under any circumstances. By defecting to the banner of “bollocks to Brexit”, it seems that his objection is less that the Conservative Party in 2019 is no longer “the party I joined in 1992”, and more that it has turned out to still be the party it said it would be when he stood for election as one of its candidates in 2017.
Aside from the principle of the issue, I’d also guess that it’s not insignificant that not long ago he made little secret of the fact that he thought of himself as a future Conservative Prime Minister (Mark Reckless, among others recalls being lobbied to this effect). While I don’t share Lee’s views on the EU, I can imagine it must have been agonising for someone with such an ambition to realise that their opinions were become more in conflict with the Party they hoped to lead and millions of its voters.
So while the Government is down an MP, and therefore sees its theoretical sort-of majority eliminated, in practice what’s happened is the official Commons arithmetic has changed to reflect what it was generally assumed to be anyway.
As for the people of Bracknell, who voted 53 per cent Leave in 2016 and 58.8 per cent for a ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ Conservative Party in 2017, the next question is whether they will get to vote on their MP’s change of Party and opinion at the next election.