Former Prime Minister David Cameron made a last-ditch bid to try and stop three Tory MPs from quitting to join a newly-formed group in the Commons.
Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston announced that they had left the Conservative Party shortly before PMQs on Wednesday to join former Labour MPs in The Independent Group (TIG).
But Ms Soubry told The Times Red Box podcast that Mr Cameron sent them a text saying: ‘Is it too late to persuade you to stay?’
Mr Cameron later said of the defections: ‘I respect their decision, but disagree with them: we need strong voices at every level of the party calling for the modern, compassionate Conservatism that saw the Conservative Party return to office.’
The three MPs who quit on Wednesday said they had not been contacted by the current leadership before their decision, despite the intervention by Mr Cameron.
The Prime Minister said she was ‘saddened’ by their decision to quit and insisted that under her leadership the Tories were offering ‘decent, moderate and patriotic politics’.
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The newly-formed TIG are already polling high, securing support from 14% in a recent YouGov poll – double the support of the Lib Dems.
More MPs from both Labour and the Tories are thought to be on the verge of quitting and joining TIG in the coming days and weeks, while TIG MP Dr Wollaston believes up to a third of the Cabinet could walk out if Theresa May steers the country towards a no-deal Brexit.
Dr Wollaston claimed the Tory party was ‘destroying itself’ as Mrs May drifted to the right under pressure from the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I know that there are many colleagues on my side who will be watching carefully and expecting Theresa May to be certain that she is not going to take us out on a no-deal Brexit.
‘Certainly I think that a third of the Cabinet, I’m pretty clear, would walk if they were looking at a no-deal Brexit.’
Dr Wollaston said ‘the Tory party has changed, I think it has changed irredeemably’, adding: ‘I would say the Tory party is destroying itself.’
Fellow TIG MP Ms Allen said that around 100 of her former colleagues on the Tory benches shared her frustrations at the direction of the Conservative Party.
Ex-education secretary Justine Greening and former attorney general Dominic Grieve both indicated they would leave the party if the Government backed a no-deal Brexit.
Ms Greening told Today she was staying in the Conservative Party ‘for the moment’.
Asked if she would follow her three former colleagues to the Independent Group she said: ‘It is something that I have considered, but I have reached a different conclusion for the moment.’
Former cabinet minister Lord Mandelson said he felt ‘morally compromised’ staying in Labour following anti-Semitic abuse endured by people such as ex-Labour MP Luciana Berger.
He told ITV’s Peston: ‘Now what is Jeremy Corbyn going to do about this? I mean, this risks growing from a splinter into a cavernous split in our party if he doesn’t take action to stop it.’
Lord Mandelson urged Labour MPs to remain in the party.