Former Conservative MP turned Independent Group member Dr Sarah Wollaston wasn’t always a hard-campaigning Europhile remainer — in fact, when she was elected to represent Totnes in 2015 she did so on a notionally Eurosceptic platform, having voted in favour of an EU membership referendum in 2011.
Indeed, her ‘defection’ from Leave to remain in 2016 was a perfectly stage-managed piece of political theatre that delivered David Cameron and the Remain campaign some great headlines in the weeks before the referendum.
With regret I have resigned from the Conservative Party pic.twitter.com/xqK5CVP1s8
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) February 20, 2019
Following her flip, I travelled to Wollaston’s south-Devon Totnes constituency to meet local voters and see what they thought about their Member of Parliament going back on what she’d been personally elected on just the previous year.
Walking around the pleasant coastal town Dr Wollaston represented, I was struck by how many ‘Vote Leave’ signs there were. That this was a predominantly Eurosceptic area was later confirmed on the night of the referendum, when it was revealed 53.9 per cent of locals had voted to leave.
Looking back at my report of 2016, it is immediately clear how badly locals reacted — indeed, all day I was only able to meet and speak to one person who supported her decision to flip.
So it is clear when Dr Wollaston now, nearly three years later, complains that the Conservative party is being infiltrated by “Blukip” or a “Purple Momentum”, this isn’t some recent development that has suddenly forced her from the party. These are the concerns of real people, being represented at a national level by an elected Member of Parliament who doesn’t represent them or the majority in the constituency on one of the key political issues of our generation.
All very well and good for @sarahwollaston to blame 'Blukip' entryism but simply talking to her constituents could have taught her much about the level of feeling on her Brexit u-turn. Flashback to when I visited Totnes to talk to voters in June 2016: https://t.co/t1hy5bJ539
— Oliver JJ Lane (@oliver_lane) February 20, 2019
Far from some sinister plot cooked up in the dying days of Brexit negotiations to punish her and other remoaners of her ilk, those driven away from her brand of ‘Conservatism’ were a force unleashed by Wollaston’s perfectly timed Brexit betrayal in 2016. Take these comments from a voter I spoke to in Totnes in 2016:
I hope no one will vote for her again. One minute she’s saying one thing and singing its praises, and the next she’s turning around and saying we’ll stay. And it isn’t doing this area any good… I really feel that she’s let the whole constituency down. She has no business being in government, winning an election on false promises and then at the last minute to change her mind. To me that isn’t a loyal politician. It’s all wrong.
Strong stuff. I had coffee with local independent councillor Andy Simms too, and he told me Wollaston’s u-turn was entirely in character for the MP. He said:
Sarah has never taken the time to come and do a consultation with the local business community or the chamber of commerce to see how the business community of Totnes has been affected… the grave concern is that Sarah, who initially was an MP who wanted to leave in the referendum, but [has now] decided to remain. She’s given numerous reasons including the benefits to the NHS, if England were to remain in Europe, although she had strongly suggested the NHS would be better off out before.
She since has said she is doing this on behalf the economy of Britain, and employment that Europe offers for residents of the UK. Yet at no point has been concerned about employment for the residents of Totnes or the South West of England, let alone those of the UK. I’m struggling to find good reason for why Sarah would choose to take the action she has, other than to further her political career.
I feel strongly that she has misguided and misled. There is a strong outpouring of support for the leave campaign in the South West. Given the historic market town status of Totnes, and the historic fishing status of many of the coastal resorts around this area Sarah had led these people to believe she was fully in support of returning fishing to how it was, and British fishing not being restricted by quotas.
I feel that she has failed in these things, and continues to fail.
Elsewhere the Bangladeshi-immigrant owner of the local curry house enthused about Britain leaving the EU and cutting immigration, the skipper of a local fishing boat told me Wollaston should stand down immediately, and a swing-voter called her change of mind “feeble.”
Blukip, or just ordinary people angry at being betrayed by an MP who said she was going to respect the result of the referendum as recently as this time last year? When Dr Wollaston complains of purple-momentum in the Conservative party, perhaps she’s just venting anger at the very people who elected her to Westminster in the first place.