“God I felt in the right place” LDV talks to Dr Phillip Lee MP about his dramatic entrance to the Lib Dems.

It was a moment of high drama. As Boris Johnson started his statement on the European Council on Tuesday afternoon, Phillip Lee walked into the Commons Chamber. Rather than turn left to the Government benches as he had every time since his election in 2010, he turned right and took a seat next to Jo Swinson.

This afternoon I spoke to him, just after he had been talking to the Washington Post and he relived that moment.

It wasn’t easy on a personal level. You can imagine, I was a member of a political party for 27 years, I’ve got relationships that are well established and some of them are going to be strained by all of this.

After he’d sat down, his watch started buzzing to tell him that his heart rate had been over 120 beats per minute for over four minutes. He had to do some deep breathing to coax it back to normal.

Today was his first day back in his constituency since crossing the floor. A walk around a new shopping centre in Bracknell had laid bare the polarisation our country faces today:

It was love and hate. It was really quite remarkable.

He’d been thinking about joining us for a few months, talking to friends and family and reading the Preamble to our Constitution and said that he felt that our ideas of equality, justice and community were where he was. You don’t, he said, just have a hissy fit and change political parties, but the final event that propelled him our way was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s LBC interview on Monday in which he disparaged Dr David Nicholls, who had contributed to the Yellowhammer Report on no deal preparations. Mogg made “dreadful statements, comparing him to someone who had been struck off.”

It made me feel as a practising medical doctor that I’d made the right decision.

That feeling intensified the next day at Prime Minister’s Questions, which he described as the worst display he’d seen by both Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

His friend, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the Labour MP for Slough, asked Boris Johnson to apologise for the derogatory and racist remarks he’d made on many occasions in the past and which had led to a rise in hate crime. The PM’s dismissive answer fired up Jo Swinson so much that she handed Johnson his backside on a plate. shortly afterwards.

Phillip knows Slough well. He has worked there as a GP for over a decade and knows its diverse communities, where 60 languages are spoken, backwards.

God I felt in the right place.

All of that appalling language in that article, it matters in communities like that because language matters and for the PM to be so dismissive confirmed in my heart that I was in the right party.

As a doctor, he said that he had problems with the Health and Social Care Bill during the coalition years. He raised his issues privately with then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and regrets that he toed the line and voted in favour of it – a view no doubt shared by many Liberal Democrats.

His move to our party has not been without controversy. There has been considerable anxiety, which has led to the resignations of Federal Conference Committee and LGBT+ office bearers Sarah Brown and Jennie Rigg. Both of them are close friends of mine and I’ve felt intensely sad this week. The party is already missing the massive amount of work that they do and I hope that we will be able to welcome them back one day.

The first concern centres around same sex marriage, on which Phillip abstained back in 2013. He explained why:

My personal view is that the government should get out of the marriage business in total and we should legislate to make all relationships equal in law calling them a civil union and let religious institutions marry who they want to marry. My expectation was that over time  those institutions would progress to a place where this wasn’t an issue. 

He supported an amendment to that end and when that didn’t get through, he decided to officially abstain by walking through both lobbies. It wasn’t about equality, because, of course, everybody should be equal in the eyes of the law.

The second issue relates to an amendment to the Immigration Bill in 2014 which called for people seeking to come to this country to prove that they did not have blood-borne illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis B. He had been approached by an eminent specialist in these illnesses who explained the need to understand their spread and for those affected to be aware and access treatment.

Phillip acknowledged that the wording of the amendment, which he said had been put together in a hurry, was difficult and he understood why people are worried about it. He emphasised, though, that It was never intended to be voted upon, or to become law but to provoke debate about how to curtail the spread of these serious illnesses.

There is a real problem with the spread of blood borne illnesses around the world and it is in the best interests of the individual to know so they can seek proper care. 

His concern was prompted by a patient who came to his surgery several months after they had arrived in this country. It eventually transpired that this person had an AIDS related illness.

I asked him if he would support a position where newcomers to the UK should be screened for HIV and other communicable diseases and, if found to be positive, offered treatment and support. “Absolutely.”  Of his patient with the AIDS related illness, he said that if he had known what the situation was, he could have treated them.

He seemed relaxed and comfortable in his new political home and will be at Conference for at least some of the time so do say hello to him and to all our other new recruits. Who knows how many there will be by then.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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30 Comments

  • Welcome Dr Lee, and more widely anyone who has studied the preamble and is comfortable with it too.

  • James Baillie 6th Sep '19 - 10:20pm

    As Caron says, a lot of hurt has happened over Dr Lee’s defection and whilst I’m glad he has started to clarify his views here, I do think that this needed to happen some days ago and meetings with LGBT+ Lib Dems needed to happen ideally before, but certainly shortly after, this took place. I hope he will also be happy to clarify more categorically than has happened here that he would not, in fact, support any policy of barring people from the country based on medical data, which was (regardless of intent) the clear legal effect encoded in his 2014 amendment.

    I am sorry that I cannot join in so excited a chorus of welcome as many other party members have to Dr Lee – but I have now lost four of my closest party colleagues this week, including two chairs of LGBT+ Lib Dems, over the mishandling of issues and failures of messaging around this. I hope that Phillip appreciates the reality of this problem and the depth of the difficulty many of us are having as a result, and that he along with his new party colleagues is ready to commit to the steps that need to be taken to improve matters in the future and ensure that the Liberal Democrats are in the best possible state to fight for those constitutional values which I am glad he has now decided are his own.

  • I don’t feel reassured at all. His position on equal marriage here is still a terrible position to take, it’s more reminiscent of American right wing libertarian Republican rather than a Liberal Democrat.

  • Andrew Hinton 6th Sep '19 - 10:53pm

    I do hate to be that guy banging on about facts, but I’m sorry, this doesn’t answer the HIV/Hep B amendment question at all. If Phillip is so happy with screening migrants so that treatment can be provided, why did his article puffing his amendment in the Independent at the time specifically say that people would have to be turned away at the border, lest our NHS be “burdened” with their treatment?

    If he actually means to say that he accepts the amendment he proposed was wrong and he has changed his view, it would really help if he just said so, rather than glossing over it like this.

  • James Brough 6th Sep '19 - 11:21pm

    Dr Lee seems to have terrible trouble making sure that what he says and what he means coincide. This appears to he a long term problem for him, as, apparently, his article from 2014 stating that infected immigrants should be turned away did not mean this.

    More recently, when he made veiled threats of legal action while being interviewed on TV, he again did not mean this.

  • While I didn’t expect a cross-examination of Phillip Lee, I think LDV could have been more vigorous in its questioning. I would have liked Phillip Lee to be asked how he could describe himself as a Liberal or a Social Democrat. I would like to know if he is socially a liberal and if he considers himself a Social Liberal. I fear the answer will be no to both. What is also worrying is that he doesn’t seem to have read the Preamble to our Constitution. My version has we seek to balance liberty, equality and community where no one is held back by poverty, ignorance or conformity. And one in which we believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens. His version does not have liberty, equality and community it has equality, justice and community!

    Then to develop the interview Phillip Lee could have been asked if he could support all the policies in our 2017 manifesto and if not, which ones he doesn’t support.

  • It is I feel worth pointing out that if you fail the TB test you will not get a visa for the UK.

    In cases where a person tests positive for Tuberculosis, they will not be issued with a certificate. The person will not be able to apply for a UK visa until they can show that they are TB free. You also need to show a certificate to this effect.

    https://bic-immigration.com/tuberculosis-test-and-your-uk-visa-application/

    Now we are either in favour of testing for contagious disease and when we find them rejecting migrants or we are not. I really don’t see the relevance about how you contract the disease, if we think the TB policy is right then we can hardly object to the policy on HIV or Hepatitis On this subject I struggle to come to a firm view, I instinctively want to help those affected by serious and often life threatening illnesses but I’m aware resources are not infinite.

    As to what you call a legal relationship, it matters not to me, if people are happy to call it a civil partnership or a civil marriage best of luck to them, as to religious marriages that is best left to those that believe but it shouldn’t hold any legal weight.

  • While the Parliamentary theatre was masterful, and characteristic of Jo Swinson, the issues thrown up by Dr Lee’s defection, and how it was handled internally, urgently need to be dealt with by her and the Parliamentary party. At the start of this week, we had three LBT+ women in federally elected positions in the party, and now we have none (of which I’m aware; very happy to be corrected). All three have resigned citing the same problems with lack of engagement and ignored concerns. The row is immensely damaging to the party’s reputation with the LGBT+ community, which has been built up over sixty years and many now feel is being wantonly sacrificed.

  • Good for him. People seem to have forgotten we elected Farron as our leader not that long ago, and no-one resigned. I am sure the party will change him more than he changes the party.

  • I echo many of the comments above.

    Whilst I welcome any new members who are willing to stand by our principles & constitution – particularly a sitting MP – there are conflicts here that have not be adequately addressed, and every attempt to paper over the cracks in the name of political expedience is just making things worse.

    A frank, honest, and *critical* conversation must be had with Dr. Lee. The kind that should have been had in the months before – Where the result is either “I continue to have a difference of opinion, but I will vote with the party on this” or “I’ve had a change of mind / heart & now back party policy”.

    Worse still though has been the parliamentary party’s response. Every statement has been a PR exercise – but they’re not supposed to be writing press releases! There needs to be an honest “mea culpa”, that says they’ve failed to adequately consult with the party, and that unavoidable processes will be put in place to consult with AOs, the Local Party, and the Federal Exec.

    We cannot afford to keep making unforced errors.

  • Spencer Hagard 7th Sep '19 - 7:41am

    Dr Lee’s stated views on equal marriage are illiberal and confused. His proposed measures to control communicable diseases would be dangerously counter productive, and are also illiberal and confused.

    Dr Lee’s past positions in these areas clearly conflict with both the Party’s fundamental values and its specific policy positions.

    The logical conclusion is that the due diligence process the party is applying to high profile, would-be entrants from other parties is seriously inadequate. It needs to be urgently redrafted and brought to Conference next weekend for debate, and possible amendment, and approval. In the meantime, Dr Lee should be courteously informed that his membership application is being reconsidered.

    And the otherwise very impressive new party leadership should remember that sound Liberal Democrat practices should always underpin, and wherever necessary take priority over, public displays of ‘the Party’s ‘successes’.

  • As a gay man I can relate to the concerns raised in other comments, but at the same time I’m wondering, did for instance Colin Breed, John Pugh, Sarah Teather, Gordon Birtwistle, and other Liberal Democrat MPs I can’t remember, who voted against same-sex marriage or didn’t vote at all, receive the same criticism? After all, they were at the time Liberal Democrats, and were expected to know better. Phillip Lee was at the time a Conservative MP, and has gone through a larger change of heart since, and has had to rethink many of his old views before crossing the floor. Sure, Brexit was probably the biggest issue, but I don’t think he is insincere, since in Bracknell where he is MP, he would probably have been more secure of being re-elected as a Tory than as a Liberal Democrat.

    Well, I wish he will prove that he has revalued some of his old stances, but also that he will be given a fair chance to prove it.

  • Alex Wilcock: Mind you, ‘Tell most of the population they’re not allowed to get married and make it a theocratic monopoly’ isn’t exactly appealing, either.

    Well quite. I’ll believe that this isn’t simply an excuse for homophobia when I see similarly active concern to prevent all future non-religious marriage, and to automatically convert all existing m/f marriages conducted in registry offices to civil partnerships. Somehow I don’t think that this would be a popular political stance.

  • Evan,
    What is the parties current policy on enforcing health checks on immigrants for infectious diseases like TB/HIV/Hepatitis, or is it a subject we don’t really have a view on? I note you said in the BBC article screening is ineffective and it certainly adds a disincentive for people to come to this country (I rather suspect that may be a plus to a certain section of our polticians and country men and women). I would genuinely like to know more about the pluses and minuses of screening, a subject I was unaware of but I know feel I need to investigate more.

  • Like many others, I was surprised that Lee joined us, rather than just becoming an independent MP, and that would have been my preference. However, if he is prepared to abide by our constitution, and hopefully positively influenced by our members, then I think it would have been churlish for us to have refused him, especially if there was a risk he’d stay within the Tory party, meaning that we (the country, not just party) wouldn’t get the benefit of removing Johnson’s majority, and everything that came with that.

    There are some concerns we’ll be criticised for accepting anyone by the likes of Owen Jones who inevitably tried to make capital out of it, whilst overlooking all of the current Labour MPs with very dubious voting records on LGBT+ issues. That’s valid and something we’ll face in the event of a general election, but I did see he faced push-back from Labour supporters who saw his position as insincere, coming from a place and poorly timed from Labour pragmatists. Many of the same people apparently concerned by Lee’s views were later taking pot shots at Berger for speaking about her experiences of anti-Semitism.

    Of more concern to me is how those within the party feel about it. I fully understand why some members are very upset by it, and respect their decision to make a public statement about it. I hope their concerns can be fully addressed, and while this interview is a start, it’s going to need more. It is a shame that more couldn’t have been done sooner, but it does sound as if Lee’s final decision was quite last minute, and all things considered, having Lee sit on our benches during Johnson’s speech was too good an opportunity to miss. That said, I’m guessing there had been behind the scenes discussions, so it’s disappointing more thought wasn’t given to addressing the inevitable concerns.

    Being realistic, the party’s leadership have been juggling so much lately and I’ve been in awe of just how much they’ve achieved and how hard they are working, so I think it’s important to see these mistakes in that context. I’ll be very interested to see what happens as we move forward.

  • “The logical conclusion is that the due diligence process the party is applying to high profile, would-be entrants from other parties is seriously inadequate. It needs to be urgently redrafted and brought to Conference next weekend for debate, and possible amendment, and approval. In the meantime, Dr Lee should be courteously informed that his membership application is being reconsidered. ”

    There isn’t time for that to happen in Sept. In any case this would be a state (English) party matter.

    There is a formal complaint in about Dr Lee whose membership would need to be approved by which ever local party he joined (which may or may not be Bracknell). I was told I would get a formal acknowledgement in 48 hours – a time which is now passed.

  • Paul Barker 7th Sep '19 - 12:57pm

    Would it be helpful for all the defecting MPs to stage a Meeting at Conference where they could talk about why they moved & how far their views have changed ? Perhaps the 3 who resigned could be invited too ?

  • chris moore 7th Sep '19 - 1:23pm

    Dr Lee has gradually moved away from his previous conservative and Euro-sceptical views.

    He should be welcomed. We need to convert more conservatives. Associating with other liberals will encourage a more liberal outlook.

    If we’re only going to accept dyed-in-the-wool liberals in the party, it’s going to be a sad, small purist affair with little chance of pushing on the legislative agenda on equal rights.

    Points of view are dynamic. People change.

    It takes courage to abandon a party after so many years.

  • David Allen 8th Sep '19 - 4:16pm

    The old-fashioned view was that political parties should be about the way the country is run, about economic systems, about responses to inequality and class, about individual freedom, about the role of the state. Issues of individual conscience, such as faith, abortion, contraception, and LBGT rights or their denial, should be matters to be tackled by politicians as individuals, not through their parties.

    There is much to be said for that view, however old-fashioned it may now seem. If a political party excludes opponents of abortion, for example, it is effectively putting up a big sign saying “No Catholics”! Should a political party act in that way? Should it even be allowed, by race relations legislation, to act in such a discriminatory way?

    If we adopted that view, we could say – “No, we are not attacking LBGT rights by admitting Phillip Lee, or for that matter by failing to expel Tim Farron, John Pugh, Sarah Teather and all who did not vote for gay marriage. We are uniting over mainstream political issues, Brexit especially. When we campaign for LBGT rights, we do that outside of our political Party.”

  • David Allen 9th Sep '19 - 12:23pm

    “Not taking a stance …. is saying “we will stand aside and do nothing””

    Oh no it isn’t. Not taking a stance on whether the Liberal Democrat Party should, as a Party, support Arsenal Football Club, or support going to church on a Sunday, or support a vegetarian lifestyle, does not mean doing nothing. It means leaving individual Lib Dems free to make their own decisions on all these questions, rather than imposing an authoritarian discipline where it just does not belong.

    If we decided that eating meat ought to be a party political question, we would end up like Labour on Brexit, hopelessly split, and unable to promote a cause effectively.

    The same applies to defending LBGT rights. It can be done more effectively outside a party political framework. Insisting on promoting the views of Tim Farron did not help!

  • Laura Gordon has today defended Angela Smith’s past comments (about the LDs) saying:
    “she engaged with us and changed her mind when the world changed around her.”

    I don’t see anyone saying that about Phillip Lee.

  • “Once MPs start trying to legislate around other people’s rights, then it *becomes* a party-political matter.”

    It becomes a political matter, yes. Whether it makes sense for a political party to take sides is very much another question. Those who think a party should impose what it deems to be a politically correct attitude on colleagues whose conscience tells them otherwise should reflect on what cause they are helping. There’s nothing so unimpressive as a politician uttering words he/she does not truly believe, as Tim Farron can tell you!

  • Back in 1994 I remember there were MPs with a principled belief that the age of consent for bi and gay men should be equal with that for heterosexuals and that for bi women and lesbians.

    They supported equality at 16 in the first vote of several that year – it failed, because slightly less than half the MPs in the Commons at the time shared that particular belief.

    Having found that they could not get the measure they wanted into law, they compromised and supported the motion which followed – lowering the discriminatory age of consent that was in place at that time to 18 from 21.

    If Philip Lee wanted equality before the law for all and separation of faith and state in partnership recognition, when it came to those votes on less-unequal marriage he knew he could not get both the things he wanted. It’s then a practical question: do you want to get as close to your goal as possible, or is the goal now stated not really the one you were working for?

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