February was the month the split finally materialised. Amid concern at the Labour leadership’s Brexit strategy and the increasingly acrimonious debate over how the party was handling accusations of anti-Semitism, a group of moderate Labour MPs (including Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie), took the decision to break with the party – establishing The Independent Group.
The initial ‘Gang of Seven’ was subsequently joined by Labour’s Joan Ryan, before three staunchly pro-EU Conservative MPs – Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry – announced they would also be leaving their party to join the newly formed group. The three MPs cited concern at the PM’s handling of Brexit as well as their unease at the general ‘right-wing’ direction the party was heading in as their reasons for leaving.
The formation of The Independent Group has certainly got Westminster excited and, arguably, its impact is already being felt. Fearful of further MP resignations, the Labour leadership has pivoted towards a second EU referendum and also moved reasonably quickly (once criticism became vocal) to suspend pro-Corbyn MP, Chris Williamson, over remarks he made questioning anti-Semitism within the party. Had The Independent Group not broken away, many within Westminster are questioning whether the Labour leadership would have felt the need to act as it has done.
On the Conservative side, the resignations of three, moderate, ‘one-nation’ type Tories has generated uncomfortable questions for the party. There is disagreement within the parliamentary party as to whether the analysis of Allen, Wollaston and Soubry – that a ‘UKIPisation’ and general rightwards drift within the Conservative Party is taking place – is correct. However, it does raise wider questions of what the Party is for (beyond delivering Brexit?) and whether the eurosceptic European Research Group headed by Jacob Rees Mogg (increasingly a party within a party) has become too dominant. What is clear is that this is not a debate that is going to be resolved quickly and, as such, the potential for further Conservative resignations cannot be discounted.
It has, therefore, been the case that the establishment of The Independent Group has stirred things up slightly in Westminster. But what of the new grouping itself? The question many centrist MPs of both major parties will be asking is whether to stick or twist – and in this regard, whether The Independent Group is seen as a viable long-term option will be crucial. Whilst the Westminster-world has followed developments with keen interest, it remains to be seen whether this appetite extends to the wider country (or whether it has even made an impact on the public so far). There is the general feeling that to be successful the new group cannot simply position itself as a pro-EU or anti-Brexit organisation; encouraging moderate (and ideally, high-profile) Eurosceptics to join will be a priority for Sarah Wollaston in her role of attracting new members to the group. It may also prove the most difficult challenge. Linked to this, will be whether the group can develop policy positions that the MPs can all agree on – high level commitments to a ‘diverse, mixed social market economy’ are all well and good, but what does this mean in reality for welfare policy, energy policy or education policy?
It is, of course, very early days and we can expect this detail to be developed over time. Ultimately, whether the breakaway group proves anything more than a flash-in-the-pan will be its ability to encourage further defections and attract public interest in the coming period.