Unless you’re one of those who got carried away with the idea of Change UK – The Independent Group fulfilling your Remainy dreams (like various prominent newspaper columnists) then it wasn’t a huge surprise that the new party flopped in the European elections.
Not only was their assumption about the inherent popularity of its own position deeply flawed, and its implementation marred by endless blunders (What is their name? What is that logo meant to be?), but their entire strategy was misjudged and incoherent from the outset. The MPs who founded had believed their own spin that they received media and public attention because of their own abilities and political skill, only to discover that they had largely been newsworthy because of their status as backbench rebels within larger parties. Even with a very sympathetic media environment, practically willing them to succeed, they were swiftly floundering, apparently finding out for the first time that politics can be quite hard.
Failing to tell a convincing story about what they were for – a “change” party proposing the status quo. Failing to seize the status of main hardline Remain party – outwitted on that by Vince Cable, of all people. Failing to cobble together a Remain alliance – ending up holding the hashtag #RemainAlliance but little else. Failing to communicate who their leader was – with a convenor, a spokesman, and a leader (or interim leader?) all speaking at once. Failing to demonstrate any grassroots presence – in contrast with packed-out Brexit Party rallies. And finally failing to explain why they attribute their problems to being new, even though another new party just won the EU election. All in all, it has been a brutal few weeks.
But that isn’t their biggest problem. Worse than being unpopular and disorganised is being so brittle and poorly structured that you struggle to respond to and overcome those problems. For various reasons, CHUK-TIG is poorly equipped to deal with failure.
For a start there’s that lack of clear leadership and command structures. Whose job is it to lead them out of this mess? Heidi Allen’s role appears to be being downgraded from New Leader to Caretaker Leader as the crisis deepens. Even if she tried to right the ship, would anybody listen to her? She doesn’t seem to have any mandate beyond a private meeting somehow settling on giving her the job.
Then there’s a lack of any grassroots depth. Attendance at their ‘rallies’ visibly dwindled during the election campaign, and from what I hear from people who initially volunteered to help their nascent structure has essentially withered away. What started as a group of MPs in a meeting room is returning to exactly that, leaving them without a base to steady them or for anyone to look to as a source of popular internal authority.
It’s not clear that they actually believe the same things about much beyond the EU. There were always going to be challenges in forging a coherent party out of MPs from different political traditions. Arguably the Lib Dems still suffer some symptoms of their founding merger, even 30 years on, and even Blairites and the left of the Tory Party do have some serious differences. Love of the EU was enough to paper over the differences on, say, austerity for a while, but the actual fracture has never been addressed.
Furthermore, the group contains plenty of potential for character clashes. It’s not unusual for politicians to enjoy the limelight, to like the sound of their own voices, to be somewhat egotistical and, bluntly, to plot and scheme. Indeed, a politician without at least some of those qualities would be in some trouble. But it’s possible to take each – or all – of them too far. And by definition a party made up of defectors has a more rebellious streak even than is normal in Westminster.
A project like CHUK-TIG needs exactly such people to be conceived, to get off the ground, and to sustain itself (Nigel Farage is just such a character) but it can also be a dangerous combination, particularly if things turn sour.
Some of the party’s earlier mis-steps are likely symptoms of internal disfunction caused by these issues, but their problems have now gone public. They have no single position on what to do next, and are instead starting to turn on one another. Allen blundered badly as their leader, throwing out hostages to fortune and confusing messages apparently off the cuff and without consideration, before effectively begging the Lib Dems for a mercy merger. Soubry is now openly criticising her colleague’s behaviour and opinions as “bizarre” and not consistent with “grown-up politics”. Umunna appears to be quietly backing away from the party as its wreckage catches fire.
It’s not even clear why the Lib Dems or Greens would take pity on them and merge or do a deal. Bluntly, they don’t need the problems the Tiggers would bring with them.