Your regular political correspondent on these pages, Georgina, has flown across the Atlantic this week to witness a country deeply divided and trapped in a political stasis of its own leader’s making, while the opposition gears up for a two year long battle with itself. She needn’t have left.
As rumours of a Labour split swirled once again on Sunday evening, it became clear that it was for real this time, and little did we know the extent of the drama that would follow. The sombre tone of the Independent Group’s opening press conference was a surprise to some, but the wrench many of the seven departing MPs felt was clear, with some on the stage with more than fifty years of Labour Party membership to their name. While political differences between the leadership and the seven MPs at London’s County Hall may have made this outcome somewhat predictable, it was the spectacle of Luciana Berger – one of the Labour Party’s brightest and most effective campaigning MPs – leaving the party after being on the receiving end of anti-semitic bullying, which stood apart.
The Labour Party’s response, at least publicly, was a call for the party to come together, with perhaps only Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s statement reflecting the gravity of the situation the party found itself in. Behind the scenes however, the readmission of the infamous former Liverpool Council Leader, Derek Hatton, to the party and further accusations of anti-semitism within the membership, led to Joan Ryan becoming the eighth MP to leave.
Meanwhile, moves were afoot on the other side of the house, with a full frontal attack on the Prime Minister from Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston as they announced they would be the first Conservative MPs to resign and join the new grouping. The difference in tone was striking, with the three former Tories looking like the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders by their departure. While their demands on Brexit, and their preference for a ‘People’s Vote’, was always going to be common ground with their new former Labour colleagues, it was Allen’s attack on the management of Universal Credit which was perhaps most interesting.
If the Independent Group is to become more than a special purpose vehicle to stop Brexit, and does become a political party, its next steps will be vital. Finding common ground and coherent policy positions will be important for a group that now has as much representation in Parliament as the Liberal Democrats. However, uniting MPs who stood on an unashamedly anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn manifesto just 20 months ago, with those who supported wide ranging cuts to the public sector over the course of the last 9 years, will be no mean feat.
The prospect of an election looms large, and the departure of Conservative MPs in particular may prove an incentive for the Prime Minister to call an early ballot to unlock the Brexit deadlock. Early polls which put the Independent Group on 14% will prove worthless if they are caught without the infrastructure and funding to field candidates nationally. If the PM does call an election, she would be wise to note that contrary to perceived wisdom, the emergence of the SDP actually reduced Margaret Thatcher’s majority.
If a similar electoral challenge to the big two parties is to follow, then the nascent group will certainly have to broaden its horizons. Only a group which contained no representation from Wales and Scotland could have stumbled across a name containing the word ‘independent’!
The absence of representation from the devolved nations may not continue for much longer, with strong rumours over Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray’s future. For Welsh Labour MPs, while Owen Smith has done nothing to calm the speculation over his own future, it may prove too difficult to leave their party while it is in Government in Cardiff Bay.
In the immediate future, it is Brexit which will unite this new political family, with the latest set of votes on the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal set to be the first test of their political mettle. Should the Prime Minister face another defeat, and rebels fail to force a second referendum, it may be clipboards at the ready for a General Election which could end the story of The Independent Group before it has begun.