The MEP who was leader of the Conservative group in the European Parliament under David Cameron has said the party has now drifted into “far-right ideology and intolerance”.
Richard Ashworth was expelled from the Tories this week, along with his colleague Julie Girling, after previously having the whip removed for defying it on Brexit.
Last month the two MEPs voted the opposite way to their Tory colleagues to censure the far-right government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, along with a large majority of other MEPs in the European Parliament. Theresa May had withdrawn the whip from both the MEPs last year, but they continued to be members of the Conservatives until this week. A statement by the MEP said his expulsion had been “consequent” to the vote on Hungary, though the party says it was unrelated.
“Having been a party worker for over 30 years and, having been a former group leader and party board member, I find this extremely disappointing,” Mr Ashworth said. “I always have been, and always will be, a Conservative. However, I am surprised that the party does not apply the same standards in Westminster and I am extremely concerned that this once broad church, pragmatic Conservative party has deserted the centre ground in favour of far-right ideology and intolerance.”
Mr Ashworth was previously leader of the Conservative Party in the European Parliament from March 2012 to November 2013 and was first elected as an MEP in 2004.
The Tories faced criticism back in the UK for siding with Hungary’s government in the vote because of its governing party’s record of antisemitism, Islamophobia, crackdowns on freedom of expression, and abuse of the rule of law.
Jewish and Muslim leaders in the UK criticised the decision, while John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, called on Theresa May to distance herself from the MEPs’ votes. She did not do so, and the Conservative party was sent a letter of thanks for its “solidarity” by the Hungarian government. Mr Orban also said he would work to get the UK a good Brexit deal. The party said it voted as it did because it did not believe it was the European Parliament's place to censure Hungary's government.
Mr Ashworth and Ms Girling earlier this year left the European Conservatives and Reformists political group in which the Tories sit and joined the mainstream centre-right grouping, the European People’s Party. Ashley Fox, the current leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, said Mr Ashworth “was expelled for leaving the ECR group and joining the EPP”.
The two rebel MEPs will now sit as independents in the European People’s Party group. Britain is set to lose all its members of the European Parliament after Brexit in March 2019 when it is expected to leave the European Union. The next elections to the body will take place in May of that year, with Britain’s places redistributed amongst other countries and also used to reduce its overall size.