Westminster Village reacts to New Independents

Setting the political agenda for the country this week was the Independent Group, a caucus of MPs in the House of Commons that only came into existence on Monday. How the two major Parties adapt to the new reality will determine the strength of their second act.

Patrick Sullivan, Political Editor
On 22 February 2019 17:06

On Monday, Seven Labour MPs, most prominent amongst them Chuka Umunna MP and Luciana Berger MP, announced they were leaving the Labour Party, in order to form a new politics. This would begin with the establishment of the Independent Group block of MPs.

This announcement dominated the entire news cycle with the narrative being that of the group’s choosing that the Labour party had been taken over by extremists and as a result, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan:  the Labour Party had left them, they had not left the Labour Party.

Intense speculation amongst the punditocracy, over which Labour MPs might soon decide to cross the floor and join the then magnificent seven, dominated the day’s coverage. It only took a day to pass until they had grown to the size of eight.

The Labour leadership found themselves having to fend off questions, from aggressive interviewers, regarding the party’s problem with anti-Semitism.  If it hadn’t already seeped into the public consciousness that Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of Labour party had an anti-Semitism problem before Monday, everyone was certainly aware of it by Tuesday.

Not so privately, the feeling on the Labour backbenches was one not of anger, but more of sorrow. That colleagues, whom they very much respected felt the need to go so far, as to bolt the party was a statement of just how bad the systemic problems, within the Party, had become.

Tom Watson, the only member of Mr Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet who is independent of the patronage of the Party leader, struck the right chord, by acknowledging the severity of the problem and pledging to tackle it head on. This would be reassuring to those on the Labour benches that expected the leader to pretend that the day’s events had not happened, or even worse, fall back on their worst instincts of attacking anybody who did not agree with them. If Corbyn had responded to the criticism of his leadership by returning fire on the Independent Group, it would likely have precipitated a tsunami of defections.

In today’s Evening Standard, edited by arch-remainer George Osborne, John McDonnell gives an exclusive interview, addressing the issue of anti-Semitism head on and gives a strongest signal yet that Labour will soon be pushing for a People’s Vote.

McDonnell, who lost in his first attempt to win the seat of Hayes and Harlington in 1992, for which he is now the MP, is known to be me much more sensitive to the niceties of politics than Mr Corbyn. Corbyn has had a somewhat sheltered political experience, having spent his career representing the People’s Republic of Islington.

In the interview, the Shadow Chancellor takes issue with his otherwise ally Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of the union Unite, who said that remain should not be an option on a future ballot, McDonnell makes it explicitly clear that remain would have to be an option. McDonnell goes further to say that Labour is indeed moving towards a People’s Vote. He says “if there was another one, I’d campaign for Remain, I’d vote for Remain”.

Europe has never been an issue that has much motivated Mr McDonnell, or being central to his brand of politics, so it is obvious that these warm words towards wishing to remain in the European Union have been said as part of a last-ditch attempt to stop the bleeding. Wavering Labour backbenches have highlighted the importance of Mr Corbyn’s next steps, in regards to the Brexit Endgame, as the decisive factor to whether they would remain in their present Party.

The choice of the Evening Standard, which has not-so subtle sympathies toward a People’s Vote, is a further dog whistle to those MPs; that whether Corbyn’s heart is in it, he is coming around to their way of thinking.

We find ourselves in the almost unique position of both major political parties having to deal with the same problem. Monday might have been a head-ache for Corbyn and co, but in a move calculated to do maximum damage, three Conservative MPs crossed the aisle to enlarge the new Independent Group caucus, whilst blind sighting the Prime Minister. This meant that the Independent Group managed to dominate yet another news cycle and the narrative this time was that of the Conservative Party also been taken over by their most extreme flank.

This time it was the turn of the Tory press office and 10 Downing Street to fend off a herd of reporters asking awkward questions. However, in the case of these self-styled three amigos, the criticisms they had of their former parties gained less traction because in the case of the three Tory MPs they left of their own volition. Whereas it would be difficult to say that Luciana Berger was forced out of her party following a string of anti-Semitic abuse, these three MPs actively chose to cross the floor and although their stances on Europe were at odds with the Tory Party’s grassroots, they did have the backing of the central Party.

The Tory defections have also reportedly made some Labour MPs, on the precipice of joining the Independent Group, think twice. Despite there being areas of consensus between Conservatives and Labour of a centrist leaning, that does not alter the fact that the starting points for both sides come from very different perspectives. The very nature of what the role of government should be is regarded extremely differently on either side of the aisle.

This ensured that Heidi Allen’s comments on Wednesday that government should be run like a business and Anna Soubry’s defence of austerity measures triggered instantaneous reactions against them, from those that dedicated their lives to the Labour Party. It remains to be seen whether this new grouping will be able to provide amicable cohabitation for centrists of all stripes, or whether its very existence will soon be relegated to that of political trivia.

 It is the received wisdom, within the Westminster village, that what Mr Umunna, Ms. Soubry and co. are attempting to do is make slow, gradual movement, towards an eventual goal of forming something resembling French President Emmanuel Macron’s start up political Party,  En Marche, in the UK.

Save for there being a snap general election this year, there is a strong likelihood that whatever the party the Independent Group is in the process of morphing into, it will field candidates in every seat. This is a cause for sleepless for those MPs, Labour and Conservative alike, who are sitting in key marginal seats.

Those, for whom we should feel most sorry, are the people in charge of the central machinery for both major Parties If there are to be any further defections, it is likely that they are going to happen prior to 6pm on Saturday evening, so that they can make the front pages of the Sunday newspapers. This will allow the, obviously media-savvy, Independent Group to control yet another media cycle and set the media agenda for the coming week in politics.

Patrick Sullivan is the Political Editor of The Commentator @PatJSullivan

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