Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
It’s long been apparent that politics is in flux, both here in the UK but more generally across the West. Brexit is simultaneously a product of this political upheaval, but also is itself a cause of greater political disruption. Yesterday, the landscape of Westminster’s body politic began to shift. But it’s not yet clear whether the defection of so-called ‘Gang of Seven’ MPs from the Labour Party to a new Independent Group marks a movement of Westminster’s tectonic plates or something relatively discreet.
Are we about to witness a schism dividing the Left – or perhaps both main parties? Might that schism reverse the trend we saw in the 2017 General Election towards a dominance of the two main parties, perhaps with a British version of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche scooping up votes from the centre ground? And what, if any effect, will this have on the direction of Brexit overall?
None of those who defected from Labour yesterday are major household names, unlike the so-called Gang of Four. That group, which broke away from Labour in the early 1980s and eventually founded the SDP, included a former Home and Foreign Secretary. Although several of the new defectors have served on the shadow frontbench, and in select committees, none have actual Cabinet experience. Without a big beast can the new Independent Group secure the continued publicity they will need?
We also don’t yet know whether the new group will coalesce into a new challenger political party, or remain a loose alliance. Will they fight in upcoming by-elections, for example? Some reports suggest there have been divisions within the group over these questions and over which of the MPs should lead the bloc. Buzzfeed’s Alex Wickham has suggested up to 30 Labour MPs have been involved in talks about possible defections, but were put off by infighting and “chaotic” disagreements.
Is the raison d’etre for the Independent Group opposing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, opposing Brexit, or to break the existing model of politics? All seven MPs are passionately pro-Remain, unlike Frank Field who has already left the Labour Party to stand as an independent, or Stephen Lloyd who resigned the Liberal Democrat whip. Yet at their press conference, the new group did not establish any clear, unified position.
Luciana Berger said the Labour Party was “institutionally anti-Semitic” and singled out a “culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation”. Chuka Umunna’s cry was to dump “this country’s old-fashioned politics”, saying “we have taken the first step in leaving the old tribal politics behind”. Chris Leslie said their “differences go far deeper than Brexit”, arguing it would be “irresponsible” to allow Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. And Mike Gapes called Labour a “racist, anti-Semitic party” that was “complicit in facilitating Brexit”.
What about the effects on Brexit? All seven MPs already oppose the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and back a so-called ‘people’s vote’. They have already been behaving as part of an internal opposition within Labour. So their defections will not inherently alter the maths in Parliament. Their defection might strengthen the hand of some on the Labour frontbench, for example Keir Starmer, who are keen to keep a second referendum in play. The shadow Brexit Secretary may now argue that Labour needs to show further leg to avoid a rebellion developing further. Or it could harden Labour’s opposition to a second referendum. But it seems unlikely that there will be a major shift in Labour’s overall Brexit position which remains one of constructive ambiguity. Gapes’s charge that Labour was facilitating Brexit was interesting given that Labour have continued to oppose the Government’s deal.
It’s hard to predict what impact the group could have without knowing more about their direction of travel on major policy questions. What will the impact be on the polls? It’s probable that the public will hear more Labour internal fighting and more about its anti-semitism issues, which will be damaging. But it’s not certain that a re-alignment wouldn’t also impact the Tories, especially if it attracts some Conservative MPs to defect. It is often argued that the SDP split set the path to Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victories in the 1980s, but some – such as Tim Bale – argue that if you look at the data it seems that the SDP also took votes away from Conservatives. And that Thatcher might have won even bigger if the Alliance had not provided an easier home for ex-Labour voters.
Will some Conservative MPs split off? It’s hard to rule this out, particularly when Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles have already suggested they would leave the Party if Boris Johnson became leader. On BBC PM yesterday, Grieve insisted that he was a Conservative, while decrying the infiltration of the Party by people with whom he had “nothing” in common. At least four Tory MPs have apparently been placed on defection watch including Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Richard Harrington.
Any defections from the Conservatives could badly weaken the ability of the Government to deliver its business through the Commons, increasing the chance of an early election. Equally, Labour’s parliamentary position is already substantially weakened, with Ivan Lewis, Frank Field and John Woodcock currently sitting as independents, Fiona Onasanya incarcerated, and the recent death of Paul Flynn.
Meanwhile, the political uncertainty over Brexit continues with just days remaining of Article 50. It’s hard to be definitive about the link between this uncertainty and recent economic data pointing to a slowing in Q4 2018 growth figures. UK growth remains relatively resilient, particularly in comparison to the recession in Italy and a projected slowdown in German growth, but it is doubtless affected by British political difficulties as business defers investment decisions.
The reported closure of Swindon’s Honda factory is further worrying news. The car industry is understandably very concerned by the prospect of a No Deal Brexit, but has also been affected by problems over diesel vehicles, as well as by the impact of the new EU-Japan trade deal. That agreement will remove tariffs on car imports from Japan, removing some of the incentive from Japanese manufacturers to produce cars in the UK or Europe. Honda is also expected to announce the closure of its plant in Turkey, as part of a wider move to return production to Japan. Nonetheless, although some seek to instrumentalise both positive and negative business news to further their pre-existing views in the Brexit debate, reasonable people should agree that the uncertainty is in of itself damaging to business confidence.
The sooner the Government can deliver clarity over when and how we will leave the EU the better. With the Labour Party in serious difficulty, it’s all the more important the Conservative Party is able to maintain its broad internal coalition and work together to find a viable compromise, acceptable to as much of Parliament as possible.
Downing Street needs to push back against associations pursuing unreasonable deselection attempts, and MPs on all wings of the Party ought to remember exactly what we have in common. Brexit has been hard for the Conservative Party, as the Prime Minister candidly acknowledged in a letter to MPs over the weekend. But the Party is more than capable of weathering this challenge if MPs and others keep their eyes focused on the big picture and find a shared way through.