Heidi Allen: 'Being an independent would probably suit me better'

Written by Sebastian Whale on 2 December 2015 in Interview
Interview
The South Cambridgeshire MP reflects on her maiden speech attacking Tory tax credit plans and reveals her frustrations with the Conservative machine

Heidi Allen never intended to make a maiden speech in the Commons. The ritual undertaken by all new MPs was one of many Westminster’s idiosyncrasies that she failed to see the substance in.

“It was not out of any disrespect for my predecessor, or the fact that I don’t love the constituency. But… it’s kind of tradition rather than purpose,” she explains.

“You’re also usually talking to a room of about five people, so it’s like what’s the point? I don’t believe in hot air. If you haven’t got anything useful to say just shut up and don’t procrastinate.”

It was only on the tube ride home the evening before that Allen put pen to paper and conjured up what turned out to be one of the most memorable - and arguably most significant - pieces of oratory in the Commons this year.

The newly-elected MP had previously voted in favour of the Government’s welfare bill, containing George Osborne’s controversial cuts to working tax credits.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said the plans would negatively impact families to the tune of £1,300 a year.  As a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Allen subsequently digested further research examining the consequences of the reforms. After a few weeks, the South Cambridgeshire MP was clear she could stay silent no longer.

On 20 October, she used her maiden speech to suggest the tax credit cuts were a “betrayal of Tory values” and berated George Osborne’s “single minded” determination to achieve a budget surplus. News of her words spread like wildfire across the UK’s media outlets. Her husband, picking her up from Cambridge train station later that day, informed his wife she had made the headlines of the evening news bulletins.

After her speech, Allen received some 40 to 50 letters from her parliamentary colleagues, including some senior Tories, praising her intervention. There was “no heavy knock on the door from the whips”, Allen reveals.  But while some of her Tory colleagues were supportive, others were less taken with her.

She recalls: “People said to me ‘well Heidi you voted it through before’. Yep, fine, I didn’t get the legislation... I didn’t get the detail, and maybe that’s my fault because I didn’t have the time to analyse it properly. But when the penny dropped, By God I thought ‘no, I can’t back this’.”

Five weeks later, George Osborne abandoned his tax credit reforms. Along with the House of Lords blocking the proposals Allen’s maiden speech has been cited as a pivotal moment in the episode. Yet the Tory MP says she had “no idea at all” of the impact her speech would make, nor did she harbour any nerves before delivering it.

On her relations with fellow Tories, she concedes with a wry smile that two, possibly three, members of the new Conservative cohort indeed are still giving her the cold shoulder.

According to some reports, a handful of MPs decided in the Commons tea room that they would never talk to their newly-elected colleague.

Sitting in her parliamentary office, she says: “I’m not a tea room hanger outer, so I wouldn’t have known whether people were not passing the milk or not, because I don’t go in there. I think there are a couple that definitely sort of drop their head if I am walking past. It’s the new ones, but literally I’m talking two, three maybe.”

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Allen’s parliamentary office is situated a few yards away from the main throng of studies occupied by politicians in Portcullis House - and the setting would seem to reflect her own position in the Tory party.

Steely yet often self-deprecating, she has a degree in astrophysics and used to help run the family’s paint business.  Allen only set her sights on becoming an MP after the Tottenham riots in 2011 and then became a councillor in the well-heeled ward of Marshalwick in St Albans. Four years later she has replaced a Tory big hitter, the former health secretary Andrew Lansley, in the safely blue seat of South Cambridgeshire.

Yet Allen had previously never been a member of the Conservative party and confesses to having not voted in some previous elections.

Since entering the Commons, the independent-minded Allen has found the behaviour of many MPs on her own side of the Chamber to be particularly tiresome. Set piece events, including departmental questions and the weekly PMQs session are not conducive to genuine debate, Allen claims.

“I love the constituency side of things; I’m doing it because, rightly or wrongly, I feel that I have ability to speak or to stand up for people. That’s the entire reason I got into politics,” she explains.

“The stuff that frustrates me here is just the sheep-like head nodding. I know we have got a tight majority, but a lot of people seem... to be obliging without being challenging. I think I’d forgotten how bad I am at following rules. And I just find it so frustrating that a lot of the time it is almost like you are not encouraged to ask or question, it’s just vote.”

Allen, it seems, is wrestling with the restrictions of party politics.

She says: “People keep saying ‘politics is a team game Heidi’… It’s all about the team, and again it’s the same on the other side, it’s all about promoting your team to be in the best light. I get that, and that’s absolutely fine, but I just feel that the team can be more powerful if people really, really buy it. So far it hasn’t felt like that, I just feel a bit like voting fodder a lot of the time.

“So much of the chamber does unfortunately seem to me… does seem that people are saying things, scripted things - they’ve made their minds up before they’ve even opened their mouths and they are just saying it to buoy their party line. That doesn’t change how people vote, so I question the value of it. Given that all this costs so much money, the taxpayers’ money, to run, I just wonder if there might be better ways.”

Allen’s rhetoric suggests her allegiance to the Conservatives is not impregnable. Might she be better off serving as an independent MP? Allen says such an arrangement might well suit her better.

“When I decided to try to become an MP, you pick a team don’t you. If there were, I suppose, the ideal scenario that you could have a voice and you could make things happen without a team, by being an independent, probably I’ve learnt that that would suit me better if I’m honest. Because I believe in good policy and good people making things happen. If that's a Labour idea - brilliant, I'll celebrate it... you will never ever hear me decrying the opposition, I'm not interested, won't do it."

Despite this, she insists she does not feel duped into joining the Conservatives and feels no regret over standing as a Tory MP.

“No not at all. There are bits about any of the parties that feel appealing. When they’re all being lovely to me the Labour lot seem really nice, but that’s just a human reaction isn’t it when people are encouraging to you. But I just think we should be less political and more about getting the job done really.”

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Her maiden speech was not the only time Allen garnered media attention in recent months.

Appearing on LBC radio in the middle of the Tory conference, she critiqued the three main prospective Tory leaders in waiting with some gusto.

Osborne was “too smooth”, Boris Johnson she could picture half naked wrestling fish with Vladimir Putin and Theresa May looked like a character from Disney movie The Incredibles.

That interview was “another fine moment”, she jokes. But Allen is still not changing her tune on the likely successors to David Cameron. Though the three Tory stalwarts are “hugely competent”, Allen says she does not “feel a connection” or “warmth” to any of them.

Citing Margaret Thatcher, Allen is longing for a conviction politician, one who can “sweep you up” and unite the disparate parts of the Conservative party.

Does anyone come close? Allen singles out Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb. But she is still looking for the next Tory leader.

“Is there one person I’ve seen who’s knocked my socks off? No, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it just means that I probably haven’t spent enough time in the Chamber.”

As for her own behaviour in the Chamber, Allen says she learned a valuable lesson from the furore over tax credits.

“Certainly a lesson for me going forwards is I will try and pay a lot more attention and learn a lot more, and really read through the detail of stuff before I go through the voting lobby," she says. "I do feel a little bit of a turncoat. I don’t want to make that mistake again if I can help it.”

But don’t expect her to keep quiet over every policy she disagrees with.

“Am I scared to do it again? No I’m not. But equally I’m not going to be Peter crying wolf, I’m not going to do it every five minutes because then they’ll have absolutely no value whatsoever.”

 

 

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