Former Tory leadership contender Sam Gyimah defects to Liberal Democrats

Greg Heffer, political reporter in Bournemouth
Conservative former minister Sam Gyimah has defected

Former Conservative leadership contender Sam Gyimah has defected to the Liberal Democrats on the first day of the party's conference in Bournemouth.

The ex-universities minister was revealed as the Lib Dems' 18th MP at a Saturday evening rally, telling party members he had joined to "help create a new force in British politics".

"I want to make a difference, I want to serve my country," Mr Gyimah said.

He added: "I have taken a second look at the Lib Dems and I am delighted to be here to embark on this journey at this point in time with you."

Mr Gyimah becomes the third former Tory MP to have joined the party in the last month, with three ex-Labour MPs also having joined the Lib Dems this year.

The East Surrey MP had put himself forward as a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership as recently as June.

He advocated a second EU referendum during the Tory contest but withdrew from the race after just eight days and before the first ballot of Conservative MPs.

Mr Gyimah was this month effectively expelled from the Tories along with 20 of his colleagues, having the party whip removed after voting against the government on Brexit.

Withdrawing the party whip sees MPs keep their seats in parliament but sit in the Commons as independent MPs.

The rebel group Mr Gyimah was part of had supported legislation that will compel Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek a fresh three-month delay to Brexit if he fails to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the EU by 19 October.

Speaking to Sky News after being revealed as the Lib Dems' newest MP, Mr Gyimah admitted to "strange emotions".

He said: "I've been a member of the Conservative Party since I was a student; for about 20 years.

"But when the prime minister withdrew the whip from those of us who voted against no-deal, we had a stark choice, which was accept no-deal and stay in the Conservative Party, or be banished into the political wilderness.

"What I have chosen to do is continue to fight for the values that I believe in, which I share with the Liberal Democrats, as a Liberal Democrat MP.

"Those One Nation values attracted me to the Conservative Party in the first place."

Mr Gyimah claimed both the Tories and Labour had become "intolerant and doctrinaire" and the Lib Dems now represented the centre-ground of British politics.

"When I stood for the Conservative leadership I knew there was very little hope of winning," he said.

"I said at the time the reason for that is I wanted to inject some Brexit reality into the debate and encourage the party to think about its core values, those liberal values.

"But what has been very clear is that is not what is happening."

Asked whether he would be a Lib Dem candidate at the next general election in his current East Surrey seat, where the Conservatives enjoyed a 24,000 majority in 2017, Mr Gyimah replied: "That's my majority."

He revealed he and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson had not yet discussed which constituency he would be contesting for the party.

Reacting to Mr Gyimah's defection, Angela Smith - a former Labour MP who joined the Lib Dems herself earlier this month - told Sky News: "It tells me a lot about where the two major parties are, in this case particularly the Conservative Party.

"It's become an English nationalist party. I can entirely understand how it is that Sam has found himself looking for a new political home and I think he's found it here today."

Conservative whips recently offered a route back into the party fold for the 21 Brexit rebels by writing to each of them to set out an appeals process.

But Mr Gyimah revealed, on a podcast he co-hosts with fellow former Tory minister and now Lib Dem MP Phillip Lee, that he would be rejecting the offer.

He said on the podcast, published on Friday: "I have said, given the letter I received, that I am not going to be accepting the whip back because the policy hasn't changed."

At their conference in Bournemouth, Lib Dem members will vote on whether to support the outright cancellation of Brexit as a new policy.

The party has previously supported stopping the UK's departure from the EU via a second referendum.

But, in a motion to be voted on by party members on Sunday, the Lib Dems will propose campaigning at the next general election on a "stop Brexit" platform.

Ms Swinson told the House of Commons this week: "In a general election, where we will stand to secure a Liberal Democrat majority, such a Liberal Democrat majority government would indeed revoke Article 50."

Which other MPs had already defected to the Lib Dems?

Chuka Umunna, former Labour MP who quit the party to help found new party Change UK. He is now the Lib Dems' foreign affairs spokesman.

Sarah Wollaston, ex-Tory MP who is also a former member of Change UK. She is chair of the House of Commons' influential liaison committee.

Luciana Berger, quit Labour in anger at what she described as the party's "institutional antisemitism". She also helped found Change UK before joining the Lib Dems.

Phillip Lee, ex-Tory justice minister who dramatically crossed the floor in the House of Commons to sit with the Lib Dems.

Angela Smith, former Labour MP and another founding member of Change UK. She is an ex-Labour whip.