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Why I left the Tories

“I f*****g hate revolutionary socialists”. At TIG/ Change UK’s European election launch in Bristol on Tuesday morning an experienced Labour hand, furious with the damage Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum had done to his old party, told me what it was that forced him from his lifelong political home.

Another candidate at the launch, a primary school teacher from the Midlands with no previous experience of politics, had been a Leave voter in 2016. Mugged by the red bus, she voted for a promised Brexit dividend for public services. She won’t be a mug again.

For Labour, the die was cast in 2013 when Ed Miliband changed his party’s membership rules, with the well-meaning if awe-inspiringly miscalculated purpose of boosting Labour’s support by giving members of the public a £3 say in electing the leader. You get what you pay for, and anyone who shelled out £3 to elect Jeremy Corbyn didn’t pay a penny more than the Lenin-capped loon is worth. They may not have realised they would get the free gift of a heavy mob of Momentum activists in every constituency Labour Party; shouting down dissent and barging moderates aside.

All political parties are coalitions; the Labour and Conservative parties were historically broad coalitions tolerant of diverse views. Brexit has made the strained coalition in the Conservative Party cease to function. For Labour, all Neil Kinnock’s reforms of the party’s constitution in the nineties and all Blair’s work to bring Mondeo Man over from Maggie was undone by Ed Miliband’s catastrophic mistake.

Both main parties have been captured by the people they exist to exclude from power. While the hard left are moulding Labour in their own image, the Conservatives are a dark political mirror, scrambling away from Cameron’s centrism alongside Nigel Farage to fill the space recently vacated by UKIP. In both parties, those left in the centre ground are looking and feeling very exposed.

There is no room left inside the Conservative Party for disagreement over Europe. Constituency parties like my own former association in Carmarthen East & Dinefwr are quick to sideline candidates sympathetic to the EU. By contrast with the party activists, most sitting Conservative MPs opposed Brexit; they know any Brexit would be a mistake and no deal Brexit a disaster.

Not that they dare say it. With a few honourable exceptions like Jo Johnson and Guto Bebb, Remain-inclined Tory MPs adopt a trite form of words about respecting the result of the referendum, while bending over backwards to find some way of leaving the EU which will minimise the damage and allow the Government to say it has done what voters ordered.

A fat lot of good it’s doing them. Conservative MPs who hope to take the sting out of Brexit by supporting Theresa May’s deal are getting exactly the same abuse as good honest Remainers. The PM is ‘treason May’; the deal described by Reesmogian colleagues in Commando-comic terms as abject surrender. To borrow the Brexiters’ imagery, any Tory MP thinking of turning back from the front line on Brexit faces a row of constituency association officers standing behind him with machine guns.

In some ways, the cod-patriotic Dad’s Army stuff reminds us of the EU’s real purpose. Never only a trading arrangement, it exists to so integrate the economies and political systems of the nations of Europe as to make war between them unthinkable.

Britain’s presence in the EEC and EU took a fundamentally good idea and improved on it. We helped Europe strike the right balance between integration and a Europe of nations; between workers’ protections and a dynamic market economy. Being proud of Britain and its role in Europe isn’t unpatriotic: quite the opposite. Shamefully, we have allowed supporters of a destructive hard Brexit to steal patriotism’s clothes and drape themselves in the flag.

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If there is no place in the Conservative Party for honesty about the harm Brexit will cause, and the desirability of stopping it altogether, there is no place for me. I don’t respect the result of the referendum. It was a wafer-thin mandate for an historic mistake. It was run in breach of the Government’s own protocol on the conduct of referendums. In Switzerland, where they do referendums better, the result would probably have been struck down as vitiated by fraud.

I want to take the most effective action to stop Brexit, and in this European Parliament election, TIG is the remain alliance. The immediate priority for us is to stop Britain leaving the EU, and we won’t be told that we are unpatriotic for supporting a political settlement that together with NATO and the bomb –both of which Jeremy Corbyn also hates– has given us nearly a human lifetime of uninterrupted peace between its member states.

However, TIG/ Change UK is not just a pro-EU project. We have come together from hugely diverse backgrounds to change the way politics is done in Britain. In the wake of the eleven ur-Tiggers’ defections from Labour and the Conservatives, 59% of voters polled said they would be willing to vote for a new party that occupied the centre ground.

Standing up for democracy means decoupling radical policies from demagoguery; it means working with and defending people of good will in all parties. For effective government to reclaim the centre ground, coalitions that govern will need to be cross-party rather than within parties.

We want our patriotism back. We want our freedoms as EU citizens back. We want decent, civilised politics back. And we want our country back. It’s time for the centre to take back control.