In 1979, before Sinn Fein became an electoral force in Northern Ireland, Fermanagh and South Tyrone was represented in the Commons by an independent Republican, Frank Maguire. He was only an occasional attender – he ran Frank’s Bar, a pub in public house in Lisnaskea – but, that year, he made all the difference.
This infrequent Commons voter, inclined to abstentionism in the Irish Republican tradition, travelled to Westminster for a no-confidence debate in Jim Callaghan’s Government to “abstain in person”. Callaghan lost by 311 votes to 310. The scene for the Thatcher years was set.
Today, as Wesminster’s rumour mill grinds out speculation about a coming general election, it is well worth casting an eye at Maguire’s successors today – the eight oddly-assorted independents who hold Theresa May’s fate in their hands in the event of tight votes, and could decide a no confidence motion one way or another.
Eight is not a large number – but big enough, it seems, to include no fewer than seven categories, five of them related to Labour.
- A member of that party that it has expelled for reasons that have nothing to do with policy: Fiona Onasanya.
- An MP who has been suspended for reasons that have nothing to do with policy: Kelvin Hopkins.
- An MP that it also suspended for reasons that have nothing to do with policy; that it readmitted, and who then resigned from it: Jared O’Mara.
- Two MPs that it also suspended for reasons apparently unconnected with policy, but who have since left it over policy: Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock.
- An MP who has left the party over policy: Frank Field.
- An MP who has left the Liberal Democrats over policy: Stephen Lloyd.
- And finally…a fully-fledged independent (though at one time a member of the Ulster Unionists): Sylvia Hermon.
Let’s go through them one by one in the manner that a Conservative Whip might.
- O’Mara voted against the Government last week both on the Brexit “meaningful vote” and the no-confidence vote. This suggests that he will continue to vote with Labour. Though one cannot be quite sure.
- Hopkins voted in the same way. But he is a committed Brexiteer. Might he be persuaded in future at least to abstain on key future votes?
- Lloyd voted with the Government last week on the Brexit “meaningful vote” but against it in the no-confidence vote. Since his policy reason for leaving the Liberal Democrats is that he believes the referendum result should be honoured, might he too be persuaded in future at least to abstain on key future votes?
- Field also voted with the Government on the meaningful vote but against the Government in the no-confidence vote. Can he persuaded in any future confidence vote at least to abstain?
- Lewis voted against the Government on the meaningful vote and abstained in the no-confidence vote. That suggests that he would do the same in future no confidence votes, which would leave the combined opposition one down.
- Woodcock also voted against the Government on the meaningful vote and abstained in the no-confidence vote. He made a speech strongly critical of Jeremy Corbyn in the debate on the latter. Again, that suggests that he would do the same in future no confidence votes, which would leave the combined opposition two down.
- A by-election is due in Onasanya’s constituency, since she has been found guilty of perverting the course of justice and she is unlikely to turn up to future votes. She abstained last week both on the meaningful vote and the no-confidence vote, which suggests that the combined opposition is three down.
- During the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, Hermon tended to vote with Labour. She left the Ulster Unionists when they went into formal alliance with the Conservatives for the 2010 election. However, she abhors Jeremy Corbyn. And she is a dedicated Remainer in a province in which the Remain cause is associated less with a second referendum than the Prime Minister’s deal. This helps to explain why she is the only independent who voted with the Government on both the meaningful vote and the no confidence motion. That takes the combined opposition four down and puts the Government one up – if this voting pattern continues, which there is reason to think it will.
Were ConservativeHome the Tory Whips, we would, rightly or wrongly, have special hopes of Woodcock, and to a lesser extent of Field, Lewis, Hopkins and Lloyd, probably in that order. The third may be hoping for readmittance to Labour which would complicate the picture.