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20 February 2019

Edelman political update: The Split Spreads

Brexit, Government Affairs

Views of Westminster, London

The unprecedented political moves continue today, as one further Labour MP and three Conservatives add their names to the growing Independent Group. It takes their number to 11, the same size as the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, and one greater than the DUP. All three former Conservatives – Sarah Wollaston, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen – had been vocal critics of the direction of travel of Brexit and the Party more broadly. As they left, they accused ERG members of “bullying” Theresa May and appealed to like-minded MPs of all parties to join them. 

What has happened?

  • Following the establishment of The Independent Group (TIG) by seven disaffected Labour MPs on Monday, its ranks have now grown to eleven MPs – after three Conservatives and one further Labour MP joined. The group now is now larger than the DUP and the same size as the Liberal Democrats. 
  • The most significant development is the departure of three previously Conservative MPs this morning; Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston. In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, they claim that the Conservative Party has moved away from being a moderate and pragmatic party, above all in the context of Brexit. They accuse her of a “dismal failure” to stand up to the Brexiteer European Research Group of MPs and add that “we find it unconscionable that a Party once trusted on the economy, more than any other, is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.”
  • In a subsequent press conference, they further attacked the ERG for “bullying” Theresa May and Boris Johnson for his “F*** business” comment.
  • In response, Theresa May adopted a conciliatory tone, saying she was “saddened” by their decision. She added that while Brexit was never going to be easy, by delivering on our manifesto commitment and implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country.”
  • Separately, Joan Ryan MP announced her departure from Labour last night saying she had been “horrified, appalled and angered” over the leadership’s failure to combat anti-Semitism.

Why does it matter? 

  • The significance of today’s news should not be played down, this is the largest set of co-ordinated defections since the foundation of the Social Democratic Party in 1979 which despite not achieving an electoral breakthrough, still had a long-term transformational effect on UK politics. It is worth noting just one Tory MP joined the SDP compared to three joining TIG today.  
  • The ability of TIG to attract Conservative as well as Labour dissenters demonstrates that it cannot now be seen as merely a vehicle for those in Labour frustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit and his handling of the party’s anti-Semitism crisis.
  • Beyond their immediate differences with their former frontbenches, TIG members have lamented a much broader and more fundamental failure of politics. This speaks to their ambition to forge a fresh and genuine alternative to the two main parties, but it is not immediately obvious where any new party would break ground along the political spectrum, and logistically, such a prospect remains a while off.  
  • More immediately, the departure of three MPs further trims the Government’s already fragile majority. As of this afternoon, the Conservative’s supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP means they can command a total of 323 votes in the Commons, while the entire opposition can command a maximum total of 314 votes.
  • However, the establishment of TIG may not change very much in terms of day-to-day parliamentary arithmetic as its eleven MPs are likely to maintain their previous voting records. Today’s three Tory defectors are already regular rebels on Brexit votes, while on other issues they said in their letter that “there will be times when we will support the Government, for example, on measures to strengthen our economy, security, and improve our public services.”
  • The key question is how TIG members would vote on a confidence motion. Given their strong opposition to a Jeremy-Corbyn led Labour Government, it is hard to see how they could justify voting in a way that could directly facilitate such an outcome, notwithstanding the fact that a snap election would very likely also signal their own premature demise. Indeed, for this very reason, such an election may now come sooner rather than later, although Anna Soubry has said this is the “last thing the country needs”.

What comes next? 

  • With TIG continuing to attract new recruits speculation in Westminster will be rife about who might be next to join the grouping, although the fact that TIG is now a mixed grouping could put off some potential Labour defectors.
  • Several MPs in both parties seen as prime candidates to join TIG have so far restated their commitment to remaining within their respective parties and fighting to promote their policies and values from within.
  •   Opinion in the two main parties will be divided between purists, who see the departures as an opportunity to impose greater ideological consistency. and proponents of ‘broad church politics’. It is possible that the fallout from this resulting struggle could in of itself prompt further defections.  
  • The Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has said his party would work together with TIG on issues of common interest, although some in the group have suggested they would not want the Lib Dem party as a whole to join them.
  • None of the three Conservative MPs have suggested they would stand down from Parliament and fight a by-election and Sarah Wollaston will not stand down from her role as Chair of the Health Select Committee.  
  • Next week’s Brexit votes – either on a tweaked Withdrawal Agreement or a motion setting out the Government’s proposed next steps – could prove to be another significant flashpoint, especially for Labour MPs still holding out hope of the leadership pivoting towards endorsing a People’s Vote.

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