Seven MPs have left the Labour Party this morning to create ‘The Independent Group’, with branding, a website, and a name that are so neutral they can only be hoping to encourage others to join from Labour and other parties. Several Tories – Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen must be top of the watch list – may join in due course, and there’s every possibility that the Lib Dems will eventually fold into the structure, given how damaged their brand is. The drip-drip of malcontents may therefore continue in the days and weeks ahead.
Don’t forget, most of what they’ve said about why they’re leaving Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was true when they stood in 2017, so a calculation that their backs are against the wall must be part of the decision behind today’s event. Most of these MPs were likely on their way out, faced with deselection by their own party before the next election. No by-elections will follow immediately, in the full knowledge they’d likely lose most or all of their seats owing to the way the electoral system behaves. And in any case, many of them will still lose if they choose to fight the next General Election, because the Labour Party brand is so strong. They were facing a potential lose-lose-lose situation.
Many of the reasons given for leaving are sincere enough – there’s genuine concern about anti-semitism and Corbyn’s worldview – but the timing really has to do with Brexit. All of those leaving support remaining in the EU and the time for making that happen is reducing every day. Corbyn has performed a spectacularly successful manoeuvre that has avoided Labour committing to a second referendum while receiving little of the public’s opprobrium for the continued impasse at Westminster. Brexit therefore represents the Independent Group’s unity and its tactical weakness: while its MPs are on the one hand saying they won’t fight by-elections because now is not the time to destabilise politics, many of them do support a second referendum that would destabilise the country in exactly the way they fear, but on a much larger scale.
So what does this mean for Corbyn and Labour? Not much immediately. His support in the Labour Party is massive and unlikely to change. And if a General Election were to come soon, these defections would likely be nothing more than a blip wiped from the electoral map. But if momentum builds with further defections, in the medium term it could really start make waves and dent Labour’s capacity to win the next election by splitting the anti-Tory vote.
It has therefore become a political imperative that Labour force a General Election at the earliest possible moment. Having tried and failed to do this by calling a vote of no-confidence in the Government, Corbyn’s only real option now is to continue to block Theresa May’s deal with the EU. Since the Prime Minister wants to avoid a no deal and since Corbyn’s strategy of inertia has so far avoided much public backlash, he will likely gamble that he can push this all the way to 29th March with May continuing to receive the lion’s share of the blame. As she sees Brexit approaching, a General Election in which the Prime Minister seeks to break the impasse may become her best remaining option – remember May wishes to avoid a second referendum at all costs, and Corbyn backs that position. She also feels she must deliver Brexit, and Corbyn is again on side here, as long as she does it. He would naturally jump at the chance an election presents: it would be an opportunity to seize the reins of power and it would rid him of the centrist threat by killing it in its infancy.
This of course all turns on who remains in the Labour Party. A good number are now thought to be considering voting for a deal to avoid Britain leaving the EU without one, but those are probably the same sort of people who are now wondering if Labour is still the right home for them. The fly in the ointment is how Corbyn can execute a destabilising manoeuvre that requires a new election while not risking his MPs rebelling to vote with Theresa May. This is why he will now back an extension to Article 50.
Being whispered quietly in the halls of power is that there’s now no way the UK can leave the EU on 29th March. There just isn’t time or a consensus in Parliament. It’s the elephant in the room that the Prime Minister will need to confront at some point, and inevitably will do so only at the last minute when dragged toward that conclusion by events. Jeremy Corbyn might now be that dragging mechanism. How long the extension will last could depend on whether Jeremy Corbyn thinks an extension might result in a new election that gives him just long enough to deselect remaining problem Labour MPs, but not quite long enough for the Independent Group to get off the ground. So business really needs to be ready for a possible General Election, and a possible Labour Government.
And what of the Tories? While a few may be considering a move to the Independent Group, a major split is less likely here. Brexit has certainly divided the governing party, but little else does. Anna Soubry’s version of Conservatism isn’t that different from Theresa May’s, despite her assertions on Twitter that her party has deserted her, rather than the other way round. UKIP are a busted flush and so MPs further to the right are not likely to defect that way. If someone like Boris Johnson takes over from Theresa May, then there’s every chance that a wider split could follow, but that’s at least one hypothetical away at the moment. So while everyone talks about Brexit being the issue that splits the Conservatives, the most successful political party in the history of global democracy might, in the longer run, just have managed to split its opponent instead. Funny old world.
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