We can see that they are shaking up Westminster. But we still don’t know if this is a durable group—or exactly what it will do about forcing an election or halting Brexitby Tom Clark / February 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
After a year of wrestling with “Brexit means Brexit,” and what a meaningful vote really means, Westminster watchers are more practised than they used to be at syntactic analysis. That’s just as well. Because with the rise of The Independent Group, there is now a pressing practical need to pull apart and inspect such fundamental terms as “party,” “opposition” and—as of this lunchtime—even “join.”
Today’s big news is that three proudly non-tribal Tories—Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen—will “join” the eight Labour quitters in what, I suppose, we’re going to have call TIG. But that is not—quite—what their resignation letter said. Instead it suggested they would resign to “sit as independents alongside The Independent Group of MPs in the centre-ground of British politics.” But is “sitting alongside” the same of “sitting within”? I’d have thought not, and I doubt the confusion produced by this line was purely the product of clumsy drafting. Although TIG have claimed the three Tory turncoats as full members, I think it is best to see how this trio of genuinely independent-minded parliamentarians operate in practice.
Today’s additions—if they are indeed full additions—swell the ranks to 11, which pips the Democratic Unionists by one and matches the Liberal Democrats. If the group continues to grow, and there are already some non-TIG independents who could be enlisted as well as more Labour deserters, the exact tally could affect speaking rights in the Commons, and expectations of and entitlements to media coverage. So it isn’t just lexicography to demand a clearer definition of the group’s status, and where its boundaries lie.
The next big question regards the nature of TIG. Although they have taken their seats on the opposition benches, are these three former Conservatives now truly “opposition” MPs or not? Another intriguing line in their letter says that they acknowledge “there will be times when we support the government” with public services, the economy and security held up as contexts where that would happen—expansive examples which might, you would think, cover most of the day-to-day work of politics, most of the time.
Even on the (supposedly) defining Brexit question, we’re not quite clear how the TIG will play it. They are enthusiasts for a second referendum, but their statement of values said very little about it, decrying Labour’s failure to provide clear opposition to the Tories’ mishandling, without actually committing to a fresh public vote or anything else. While they bed in as a bloc, and figure out how they might evolve into a full-blooded party, they are painfully keen to commit to as little as possible, presumably to attract the maximum number of MPs possible.
In ordinary times, staying vague might be shrewd tactics. But when we are weeks or even days away from the fateful votes on May’s deal, it needs to get its line straight pretty quick. None of them like what’s she’s offering, but will they all respond in the same way to her “my way or the high way” threat? Could they live with “Norway”? I don’t know. But if there are divisions, I do know that in a non-party that doesn’t yet have a leader, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone imposing a whip.
In the final analysis, the question of whether this is an opposition group surely comes down to whether or not they would—in the end—back the May government in a confidence vote. I don’t think we know the answer to that. The eight former Labour MPs in the TIG share with John Woodcock—a lone independent who resigned Labour’s whip amid a disciplinary process—the same over-riding desire to stop Jeremy Corbyn getting into No 10 that led Woodcock to abstain in the last confidence vote in January. The launch statement laid heavy emphasis on national security, seen as inseparable from a Nato alliance which they know Corbyn disdains. So they could sit on their hands, but that would be to risk giving a free pass to May’s Tories whom TIG charges with galloping off to the wild Brexiteer fringe, which would rather defeat the whole point.
My guess is that if the TIG is confident May will win a confidence vote, they will cheerfully oppose her. But if they start to get jittery that she might actually lose, then they might sit on their hands. Or some of them would. And not only because of dislike of Corbyn, but also because of fears about what triggering an election could (depending on the polls) mean in their own seats—and for parliament as a whole.
The whole idea of the new centrist proto-party is supposed to be that the two big tribes have got too extreme, and need to be moderated by a new middle force. But that only works in a hung parliament, where everything has to be traded and bartered. And yet here’s the crowning irony.
We’ve got a hung parliament today. If TIG is too successful at drawing in more MPs from the Tory side in particular, it could make governing in that hung parliament impossible, and trigger an election which could conceivably result in a restoration of blue or red majority rule—in which the centre would lose all traction.