The Liberal Democrats should cautiously accept Phillip Lee and other defectors into the fold – however, they must not let the liberalism at the party’s core slip away.

First published in September 2019.

So, Boris Johnson has lost his majority. All it took was now-former Tory MP Sir Phillip Lee to cross the chamber quietly whilst the Prime Minister was making a speech. Between this and kicking out twenty-one other now-former Conservative MPs — amongst them ‘big beasts’ like Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond — it seems like Boris Johnson and in particular his special advisor, the infamous Dominic Cummings, aren’t the brilliant tacticians many in the Tory ranks hoped they would be.

I don’t want to focus however on the absolute circus of the Johnson Government. For one thing, we all kind of hoped and expected Boris would turn out to be such a massive cock-up as Prime Minister, right? Don’t get me wrong, there was a part of me that thought, ‘hey, he’s being preparing for this his entire life, maybe he’ll be slightly prepared’. But no, just as expected, he’s cocked-up, and in fact, has managed to lose every single vote he has presided over as Prime Minister. Secondly, Sir Phillip Lee’s acceptance into the LibDems has sparked some controversy that has been lost under just how badly Johnson has been messing everything up.

An illiberal past

Much of the controversy surrounding Lee’s acceptance into the LibDem fold has surrounded his past voting record and statements, most especially those on LGBT+ rights; for example, he abstained on the 2013 vote to extend equal marriage rights to LGBT couples. This record on LGBT rights is what has led to many former LGBT+ LibDems to resign, including the former chair of the LGBT+ LibDem group, Jennie Grigg.

However, this record alone isn’t the only reason for their resignation; Lee has proven to be rather infamous for his comments surrounding immigration. For example, in 2014, Lee tabled an amendment to the then-Coalition government’s immigration bill that proposed that any potential migrants to the UK should have to prove that they were not HIV positive. The amendment was met with a huge outcry, not just from AIDS/HIV advocacy groups but also from other MPs in the then-Coalition parties, with Margot James  —  one of those twenty-one Tory MPs to lose the whip on Tuesday evening  —  claiming that it dragged the Tories back to the dark days of the 1980s and Section 28. When asked about the outcry this caused both amongst current LibDem members and those that had left, Lee was less than gracious, commenting that those making such accusations were engaging in slander.

Other aspects of Lee’s past voting record have annoyed many on the LibDems social-liberal wing. Lee suggested for example that those with lifestyle-related diseases, such as Type-2 diabetes, should be made to pay for their drugs, rather than receive them free under the NHS. He also voted against an inquiry into the debacle that was the Iraq War, whilst defending the Trident missile system (an issue that has proven contentious at LibDem conferences in the past).

Broken straws and mixed feelings

All in all, Lee hardly seems like a good fit for a party that explicitly describes itself as ‘liberal’. However, the controversy and subsequent resignations from party members, whilst very much understandable for LGBT+ members of the party, is also somewhat odd.

Yes, his past voting record is indeed illiberal, but so too is Sarah Wollaston’s, another former Tory MP who joined the LibDems around a month ago. Indeed, Wollaston wrote in support of Lee’s controversial HIV amendment  —  Where was the controversy, the outcry surrounding her joining the party? I didn’t notice any, other than the usual slurs coming from the Corbynite left (the LibDems are now the Tories) and the Brexiter right (traitor to the country).

Furthermore, whilst other recent additions to the party such as Chuka Umunna (former Labour and Change UK MP for Streatham) have generally voted in a broadly liberal way before joining the party, those long established have made statements totally at odds with the liberalism the party is rooted in. Who can forget the ‘is gay sex a sin’ controversy Tim Farron became embroiled in when he became party leader in 2015? What about the many anti-semitic comments made by former LibDem MP for Bradford East, David Ward? I’m not aware of such an outcry existing when Ward made comments that suggested that Jews in the UK were using their money to buy-up” politicians, thus perpetuating the disgusting far-right, anti-semitic conspiracy of rich, Jewish individuals using their money to ‘control the world’?

Such members didn’t resign their party membership over these comments, so why now? Is Lee the ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’? It’s certainly possible, and according to Rigg, this is not the first time that the party leadership has let down LGBT+ individuals (one supposes this refers to Farron’s comments, as well as the actions of some LibDem MPs in Coalition who voted against equal marriage).

Between a Brexit-shaped rock and a hard place

Still, these resignations seem mistaken, at least me. Lee’s voting record is indeed illiberal, let’s make no bones about it. An apology for his part in the immigration bill (at the very least) is certainly warranted, and it wouldn’t hurt him to do what Chuka Umunna did when he joined, namely actively support the party’s broader liberal (not simply anti-Brexit) agenda. There’s also the small matter of whether (a) Lee actually remains a LibDem MP after Brexit is sorted, or (b) whether the local constituency party will let him remain one. If Lee didn’t end up as the PPC for Bracknell, then I don’t think many in the party would actually be disappointed, at all.

In closing, the LibDems should cautiously welcome Lee and other potential defectors, particularly at this crucial juncture in the debacle that is Brexit. Views aside, there is a real crisis surrounding Brexit, and any help anti-Brexiters or People’s Vote-types can get should be welcomed. However, the party needs to emphasize to existing and potential defectors that they aren’t simply the anti-Brexit party, but the liberal one also. If those defectors decide that the party is not for them, come what may with Brexit, then they can either leave, rejoin their old party, or be deselected by local constituency parties.

This balance, between principle and pragmatism, is one the LibDems have, up until now, managed to maintain to a fairly good degree. I hope they’ll continue to manage it.

God knows we need more (not less) liberalism right now.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 5 September 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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