How big a political event is the defection of some Labour and Conservative MPs to form an independent group in the House of Commons? Well, for now it is certainly newsworthy, but it is not yet the realignment of British politics that many are hoping it will be.
To make such a claim justifiable a great deal more MPs need to defect from both parties so the new grouping has parliamentary clout, and secondly an appealing core philosophy that offers an attractive range of policies needs to evolve. Both of these requirements are some way off – and may prove unattainable.
I have no intention of being churlish about what, for the eleven MPs so far involved, is a courageous personal decision, but there are two obvious problems that need to be confronted. The first is that the independent group is thus far an entirely English phenomenon, and secondly the only common cause its members have is their strong opposition to Brexit.
Comparisons are understandably being made with the founding of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 when the ‘Gang of Four’ formed of ex-Cabinet members Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers left Labour to set up their new party, but this is a decidedly more restrained affair. Altogether 28 Labour MPs and one Conservative joined the SDP, making it the third largest party at Westminster.
Not only are the new group’s numbers smaller but it is noticeable that no Scottish or Welsh MPs have yet joined, whereas in 1981 Scottish Labour MPs Robert Maclennan (Caithness & Sutherland) and Dickson Mabon (Greenock & Port Glasgow) were joined by three Welsh Labour MPs, Ednyfed Hudson Davies (Caerphilly), Tom Ellis (Wrexham) and Jeffrey Thomas (Abertillery). The large number in the SDP group, its comprehensive national reach and the success of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams in the Glasgow Hillhead and Crosby by-elections gave the party a seemingly irresistible momentum.
To overtake the SNP and become the third largest party at Westminster will require the independent group to attract 36 members in total and that looks a big challenge at the moment. Such an achievement would give the independents two weekly questions to the Prime Minister and much needed airtime (also knocking the SNP down to one guaranteed question a fortnight).
Were the 12 Liberal Democrat MPs to join that would immediately take their number up to 23 and provide four MPs from Scotland. That is looking exceedingly unlikely for now and would undoubtedly erupt into protests and possible rejection by Lib-Dem members at their annual party conference.
More defections from Labour is likely to be more fertile and a drip-feed of new members is expected over the next week, but will it be enough – and does every Conservative recruit not make Labour members think twice?
There has been much speculation about the possibility of Labour’s Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray defecting but he has pledged to stay in Labour despite holding strong views on Brexit that differ from Jeremy Corbyn. Likewise, Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell has gone on record to say he has no intention of leaving the Conservatives, although he might resign from the Cabinet. This leaves no other obvious names as possible contenders for Scottish membership of the independents.
This is important for the development offers nothing new to Scottish voters that might change the dynamics away from the fixation on the constitution, meaning the possibility of a rupture in the United Kingdom remains.
This geographical limitation is compounded by the ideological weakness that MPs such as Anna Soubry, pictured, a former Conservative Minister who makes no apologies for supporting George Osborne’s economic policies of austerity, is green kryptonite to many Labour MPs. With the only common bond being opposition to Brexit where does the grouping go after the 29 March when the UK leaves the EU? Does it then seek to campaign for re-entry to the EU or accept the will of the British people?
It is certainly unusual to launch a party committed to overturning the largest democratic vote since universal suffrage was obtained in Britain – all the more so when the 11 defecting MPs are refusing to put themselves forward for a “people’s vote” of their own in their constituencies by resigning and forcing by-elections.
The position of the three Conservative MPs looks especially weak, given they not only stood (like the Labour MPs) on manifesto commitments to leave the Single Market and Customs Union, but also voted for invoking Article 50 and the European Withdrawal Act that together put the UK leaving the EU without any deal on to the statute book.
An early test of what the public thinks of this week’s development will come in the English local authority elections this May. If the Prime Minister has not delivered some form of Brexit before then it is anyone’s guess where political discontent will manifest itself – but siding with council candidates that want to stay in the EU is unlikely to be the natural home for protest. The prospects for the Independent Group are not encouraging unless they can gain some early political victories that give cause for people to rally around them.