Today marked the culmination of not one, but two threads of the Brexit story. Whilst Boris Johnson finally managed to get a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons, The Independent Group for Change announced they were winding up.
In a letter to the membership, Anna Soubry reported that the party’s management council had made a unanimous decision to wind up after losing all its remaining MPs at last week’s general election. She strikes a defiant tone, arguing that “It was always better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.”
But it is nonetheless a sad end for what was intended as a serious attempt to at least shake the mould of British politics.
Soubry was an early enthusiast for a new party, and was reported as publicly declaring her willingness to defect as early as March 2017, when it still looked as if Theresa May was about to establish her own brand of Tory hegemony, and when the vehicle in question was apparently a George Osborne-backed vehicle called ‘The Democrats’.
We sounded a note of caution about such a project at the time, arguing that the alliances forming over Brexit didn’t map very well onto other divisions, such as over economic policy, and that a new party formed in the particular circumstances of departure would struggle to find a long-term role. One passage feels particularly prescient:
“‘Democrats’ basically describes everybody, and so doesn’t really describe anybody. Such a bland name speaks to the fact that its far from clear what the various bits of the ancien régime are supposed to unite around. They may have all found themselves on the same side during the Brexit referendum, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real differences between them.”
Of course the eventual product ended up at one point being called ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’, compounded the inherent meaninglessness of the ‘Democrats’ styling with extra corporate vacuousness, but the underlying problem remained.
We saw this playing out during the European elections, when the admission of three Conservative defectors – especially Soubry, unabashed defender of austerity that she is – muddied the originally clear, Labour-ite identity of The Independent Group. Change UK (as was) couldn’t find a coherent message beyond Brexit, and lost that mantle to the Liberal Democrats. Their campaign was a project-ending disaster that was almost painful to watch.
In the end the Lib Dems ended up botching their own moment, and so those ex-TIG MPs who defected to Jo Swinson’s party have shared the fate of Soubry and her rump of TIGfC loyalists. After an extraordinary number of floor-crossings and changes of allegiance, not one MP who did so has been returned to the new Commons. Johnson’s majority has brutally reasserted the primacy of the party system, at least for now.
So much drama – but what will the long-term implications be? From here, it feels like Change UK’s legacy could be similar to that of NI21, a Northern Irish party likewise formed to break an old duopoly and bring people together across traditional divides. It also sported awful branding, and was likewise incompetently managed.
The net result was to squander much of the potential reserves of activists, money, and goodwill – not to mention sitting MPs – that were evidently available to such a project. It is a similar story here: as I noted during the campaign, the scattering of the rebels between so many different groups meant that few (and in the end, none) posed a serious threat to their old parties. Now they are all out of Parliament, their supporters jaded, and their cause lost.
Having chosen to try to fight on Brexit, those who were once touted as “Parliament’s new tribe” have used up so many of the resources they might have used to try and carve out a space in the post-EU realignment of British politics. With Johnson facing some difficult policy and positioning challenges in the years ahead, he may well end up owing his opponents a debt of thanks for that.