The frontman of Britain’s new political centre force said the unnamed Conservative, a minister of state, had sent him a supportive letter after the group’s launch.
Mr Umunna, who called the development “extraordinary”, said “a lot” of both Labour and Tory MPs were giving signals that they could defect. “Everybody is on their own journey,” he said. “It’s a very personal decision. You may know people are on the journey; you never know when they are going to get to the destination.”
Asked whether the current 11-strong group of MPs — nicknamed the TIGs — could double in size, he said: “I think there are a lot of MPs in both parties who are on that journey, but when they reach the destination, who knows?
“I got a very nice letter from a minister of state, actually, that suggested they were on the journey, which is quite extraordinary.” Mr Umunna’s disclosure will set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street — and spark a guessing game over the identity of the Tory.
Revealing the behind-the-scenes drama of TIG’s surprise launch at Westminster two weeks ago, Mr Umunna said they resorted to “MI5” style tactics to keep the plan secret. He even used a codeword in his diary to record meetings, writing PBP, short for Pre-Brexit Planning, even though Brexit was only a small part of the discussions.
Even so, the launch was almost rumbled when a worker blundered into a meeting, just as Luciana Berger was practising announcing, “We have today resigned from the Labour Party”.
Mr Umunna said the group has set a deadline of this autumn to launch themselves as a fully fledged party and intend to contest every UK parliamentary seat at the next general election. The Streatham MP unveiled bold proposals of his own to bring back a modernised form of “national service” for all school leavers, change the voting system, turn the gothic House of Commons into a museum and replace it with a brand new chamber.
His proposals, to be officially launched in a pamphlet tomorrow, will go into TIG’s first policy forum, kickstarting the countdown to their debut manifesto at the 2022 election.
Two weeks after the launch, Mr Umunna said: “The reaction from people on the bus and Tube has been overwhelmingly positive. All our other halves have said ‘Gosh, you look happier, you’ve got a spring in your step.’
“I have to confess I was dreading the first vote in the Commons a few hours after the launch. But people shook our hands and said, ‘We understand why you’ve made the decision’. People gave us hugs when I had expected them to blank me.”
Mr Umunna said he would never have believed he might leave Labour when he joined the party 22 years ago, but added that it was no longer the same party.
“It has been painful and really difficult,” he said. “But the fact is the Labour Party is now a different party. It is a new party with a different membership. Eighty per cent of the members in Streatham joined after May 2015 [when Jeremy Corbyn launched his leadership bid].”
The new members were not only hard-Left and hostile to the traditional members, but they also did not reflect the local multiracial community. “At the last big meeting I went to, of about 400 people there were less than 30 people of colour in the room,” said the MP, who was the first black MP elected to the Brixton area. “That’s in a constituency where it is 40 per cent or so BME.”
Mr Umunna said Labour’s changes are a “symptom” of a broken-down system that fails to reflect a country whose people have moved on from the old Left-Right knockabout. “Our politics is fundamentally broken,” he argued. Pointing out of his window in Portcullis House to Parliament, he exclaimed: “I mean, that place is frankly a museum. It should be one. I personally think we should take advantage of the fact that we have to move out of that building, and have a modern building with modern chambers, organise it differently, abolish Prime Minister’s Questions, change the entire thing because it is well and truly …” He laughed rather than say the expletive out loud.
But he is serious about quitting the Palace of Westminster. Changing it for a modern building with a horseshoe chamber and MPs picked by proportional representation is one of the proposals in his 37-page pamphlet titled What Are Progressives For?
Explaining his own “journey”, the MP said a key moment came after forming an all-party pro-Europe group with Tory Anna Soubry. “She was a really good friend but as we got to work more and more together, we realised we had a lot more in common than just Brexit,” he said.
“Sarah [Wollaston] and Heidi [Allen] became part of this and I came to realise that, actually, I’ve got far more in common with these people than I have with, say, Chris Williamson [the Labour Left-winger] or, well, I could go through a list of people.”
Another milestone was when he and some Labour and Tory friends were chatting about “the need to build something new and disrupt the status quo”.
Finally, they held a secret meeting in his office, Room 221, to talk it through over chocolate biscuits, cans of coke and crisps.
“We had to be like MI5 in the way we operated because it needed to be really tight. There would be big problems if it leaked,” he said.
“When we finally met, in this room, it was quite a moment. A bit of nervousness. Not everybody knew each other so well. A feeling that what we were doing could potentially be very big — and it was fraught with risk.”
They started talking, mainly about their values, and the result was “lovely — we realised even more that there was so much shared ground. We all bounced out of it after an hour and a half and people were saying ‘Oh my gosh, how refreshing — I haven’t felt this positive about politics for months’. I said to Chris Leslie, ‘That was quite something. I think this is going to happen.’”
They met regularly after that, often in Mr Umunna’s office, the friendships growing over Domino’s pizza and bottles of wine. An east London pub and a small business hub were also used for furtive summits.
Finally, they picked the quiet school half term as the ideal moment to detonate the biggest political bombshell of the year so far.
They borrowed some offices for a dress rehearsal “because we were really worried the emotion of the moment might get to us, that we might break down.
“But the plan almost backfired. Just at the moment when Luciana said ‘Today we have decided to resign our membership of the Labour Party’, literally as she said that sentence, somebody who worked in the offices walked into the room by mistake.” TIG member Gavin Shuker dashed after the unwitting intruder who, to their relief, promised to keep the secret.
For the press conference, Mr Umunna’s mother and his wife Alice, a lawyer, with whom he had a daughter in 2017, were in the room. At the end, Alice told him: “I am just so incredibly proud of you.”
For the future, Mr Umunna said the TIGs were determined to do things differently from the old parties. They will choose a leader — he has been named spokesman in the interim — “but we certainly won’t have a cult of leadership where you treat a leader like a messiah who drops down pearls of wisdom that nobody questions”.
The other TIGS are Ms Berger, Ms Wollaston, Ms Allen, Ms Soubry, Mr Leslie, Mr Shuker, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey, Joan Ryan and Angela Smith.
He would like to see TIG election candidates from outside politics, saying: “People want something fresh new and different.”
Will he stand at the general election for Streatham? “I want to, but I don’t know,” he said. “But I am absolutely clear that I am not leaving the field, let me put it that way.”