Apparently, there have been “informal talks” between moderate Labour and Conservative MPs about forming a new, centrist party if Andrea Leadsom wins the Tory leadership. Not just a centrist party, a ‘pro-EU’ centrist party.
These rumours – denied on this site by Nick Boles, who seems as opposed to Leadsom as any – make great column fodder, so they’ll doubtless receive a lot of attention.
Such talk also fits into other stories – such as legal challenges to the referendum or a rediscovered enthusiasm for Parliamentary sovereignty – that offer comfort to our dazed and disoriented Europhiles.
But let’s actually consider what launching a Centre Party would necessitate.
Who would join it? It’s obviously great for the Liberal Democrats, who we can expect to be (almost) wholly in favour.
A new party would offer transfusion of fresh talent, a replenishment of their numbers on the green benches, and maybe an out from a much-damaged brand – not to mention a vehicle to resist Brexit, which seems to be the plan.
(Can we imagine MSPs uniting into a new pro-UK party in the event of a Scottish vote for independence, to continue the struggle?)
Then we have the Labour right, presumably if they were unable to shift Jeremy Corbyn. There’s enough intellectual crossover between Blairism and certain shades of Lib Dem thinking for a match to work.
Yet there are problems, not least of which is that Labour is most directly scarred by the traumatic experiences of the SDP in the 1980s.
That had a lot going for it – high profile leaders, a hard-line Government, and shambolic opposition – yet failed to take off. Nearly all the Labour MPs who defected to it crashed out of Parliament at the next general election.
Then you have the very strong sense of tribal loyalty: being a ‘Labour person’ seems to matter in a way that being a Conservative doesn’t. Even if an MP did defect, would their local activists? Or would they be left adrift with no campaign machine?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why would Labour MPs want to abandon the political left to Jeremy Corbyn by joining an explicitly centrist group co-founded with ex-Tories? A bid to try to dislodge Labour with a new centre-left vehicle, such as the Co-operative Party, seems more likely, were a split to occur.
Lastly, whilst Conservative MPs on the party left might see the appeal of a new party in theory – there’s certainly that same intellectual crossover with Blairism – they face many of the same challenges as would-be Labour defectors.
With the possible exception of those who do hold strongly pro-Remain constituencies, most do not hold seats which we might expect this parti du l’ancien régime to win in a general election.
Indeed, as this helpful guide from Buzzfeed shows, ‘the 48 per cent’ are concentrated in substantially fewer than 48 per cent of Parliamentary seats, and relatively few of those are Tory.
Factor in the loss of local activists and the money and machinery of the national Conservative Party and most defectors will likely have a very tough fight on their hands.
This matters, because not every decision can be taken from a point of high principle. Losing their seat means not only that an MP loses their income – and the support it provides their families – but that all their staff are out of work too.
Politics is also a social business, and this sort of floor-crossing can and does sunder relationships. It’s nice to have made some new friends over at Britain Stronger In, but how many old ones are you prepared to lose for their sake?
Finally, the more thoughtful liberals – amongst whom we can count Boles – will probably realise that their philosophy will be much weaker if it is drawn out of the two major parties.
With the brief exception of the Coalition, and Tim Farron’s new line of euro-revanchism, the Lib Dems have mostly spent the past quarter-century keeping talented liberal politicians on the margins of British political life. How much more good might they have done had they instead bolstered the liberal wings of the two power-wielding parties?
None of this means that a new party and a wholesale realignment of British politics is impossible – that would be a fool’s pronouncement after the last few weeks. But it does remain monumentally unlikely.
The two major parties, for all their faults, are broad churches, and our electoral system buys them the space to re-position to reflect the key divisions of the day. New ideas in familiar packages remains by far the most likely, if less exciting, result of this post-Brexit upheaval.