The so-called “independently-minded” Conservative MP is merely a conventional soft-left member of the public sector producer class
Sarah Wollaston — GP, Conservative MP for Totnes and Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee — is the very model of an independent-minded MP who is unafraid to speak her mind and attack her own government’s policies. If only we had more MPs like her who did not blindly follow the whips’ diktats our politics would be much healthier and we would be better governed, the cry goes out. Surely it is only lunatics, party leaders and the denizens of the whips’ offices who could imagine that independentmindedness in MPs is overrated?
Wollaston owes her place in the Commons to an experiment in democracy the Conservative Party undertook in 2009. Two MPs who came out particularly badly from the parliamentary expenses scandal were Sir Anthony Steen, the Totnes MP, and Sir Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport. Viggers had charged £1,645 for a duck house and Steen had spent more than £87,000 in expenses on his constituency home. Steen made the foolish decision to go on the radio and declare that his opponents were motivated by jealousy: “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral . . . it looks like Balmoral.” (It doesn’t.)
The Tories thought: how best do we decontaminate our brand in Totnes and Gosport? Why not ask the voters as a whole to pick our candidate? So, along the lines of US primaries, everyone on the electoral roll in those two constituencies was sent a postal vote to choose between the shortlisted candidates. The shortlists, unlike in American primaries, were drawn up by the party — one would not want to go too far with this democracy thing. On the Totnes shortlist, as well as two Tory local government figures, Wollaston was let through. She was a practising GP in Totnes with no previous political involvement. Those who knew her then say that her political views, when she expressed them, were the conventional left-wing platitudes common among public-sector professionals.
While there was much talk of the Conservatives rolling out open primaries to 200 seats, the experiment has not been repeated, except for the unusual circumstances of the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014 where the sitting MP had defected to UKIP.
Since being elected, Wollaston has understandably made healthcare her big issue. Her independence — i.e., the fact that she keeps attacking government policy — has been celebrated for showing how open-minded and willing to think for herself she is. In fact, her views simply reflect the soft-left assumptions of the NHS producer class — she is trapped in her old profession’s groupthink. It is often (accurately) stated that MPs’ careers are stymied by going against the party leadership, but in Wollaston’s case it has done the opposite. Select Committee Chairs are allocated between the government and opposition parties by negotiations between the whips’ offices, but then all MPs can vote in a secret ballot for rival candidates from the one party. For Tory MPs who seek to be elected as a Select Committee chair — and to gain the platform, status and additional salary of £15,000 per year the office brings with it — it is expedient to be critical of their party leadership as it is the best way of gaining the votes of Labour and other opposition MPs in the ballot.
Wollaston has shown her independence in other respects — but has not been consistent. She was a supporter of an EU In/Out referendum and voted for it before it was Conservative policy. She initially supported Leave in the referendum. She then defected to the Remain side two weeks before the referendum, citing her displeasure at the £350-million-to-the-NHS claim on the side of the Vote Leave bus. Wollaston is now one of the few Tory supporters of a second referendum to overturn the initial result. Unlike Frank Field, Wollaston has not rebelled on issues where she has deeply-held and consistent views. She says that she is speaking up for her constituency, but even Totnes — an island of incense and folk weavery in a sea of Devonian farming folk — voted 54-46 per cent for Leave in the referendum.
What would a parliament full of Wollastons mean? This is what some, such as the former Conservative then UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, dearly hope for: independent MPs putting their beliefs and constituency interests before party. This is pretty close to how the US system works. Senators and members of Congress have to be persuaded to vote for each piece of legislation as they know they rely on voters in primaries for their nomination — not the party machine. Politicians do not usually take their stances out of high-minded principle but as bargaining chips to secure advantages for their constituents. It is not a good way to govern a country. Reform becomes difficult and public expenditure is misapplied. The US has lower than European but still relatively high rates of taxation along with appalling levels of public service. Its political system is largely to blame for this — it partly explains why Reagan could not push through his reforms as wholeheartedly as Thatcher. For Thatcherites such as Carswell dreaming of the wholesale reform of the UK, the last thing they should wish for is a House full of Wollastons. Strong political parties have much to commend them.