Brexit and MP break aways: Leavers and Remainers

7:59 pm on 21 February 2019

By David Townsend*

Opinion - As the Brexit shambles has continued, dividing left and right, government and opposition, the sight and sound of splintering party loyalties in the House of Commons have become commonplace. Labour MPs have voted for Mrs May's Brexit plans against the party whip.

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MPs in the House of Commons, including three former Conservative Party who are now Independent MPs and six Labour Party members of the new Independent Group of MPs. Photo: AFP / Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament

Conservative MPs have voted against the government and their party whip. The fault lines turned to open fractures this week. Labour's self-declared eight "Independents" were the first to go. There may be more in the weeks to come.

But the Conservative government has not been "leaver" immune. Today, three of their most articulate back bench - two were former ministers under David Cameron-opponents of a no deal or a hard deal Brexit from the European Union - joined the eight Labour defectors (who want a second referendum on Brexit) on the opposition benches. It is unlikely there will be more of them: Tories tend to hang better together.

Whilst their immediate focus is on Brexit, both groups made clear their complete lack of confidence in their respective leaders: Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

May for leading a Brexit who knows where and Corbyn for signing up to that.

The hostile rumblings in the Labour Parliamentary Party have been ongoing since Mr Corbyn's election as party leader four years ago.

Anti-Semitism in the party is also laid at his door.

Mr Corbyn's entire 30 year career had, till then, been based on not being leader.

He had carved out a distinguished record of over 500 parliamentary votes recorded against his own party in opposition or government.

All, his supporters would say, matters of principle. Quite whether his recorded opposition to the EU as a capitalist club is a matter of principle, is arguable.

His translation to leader was facilitated by a change in the rules. MPs no longer had the greater say.

For an annual three pound sterling a head, party members really made the decisions. Most of the Labour MPs in Parliament wish he were not the leader.

Mrs May's critics concern themselves with her hard right views.

As they see it: her obsession with immigration, reduction of welfare programmes and her desire to pander to those who want a Brexit, if necessary, with no deal at all.

The challenge to her leadership by the Conservative Parliamentary Party at the end of last year resulted in 117 votes against, out of just over 300.

Both groups of MP leavers believe they have more in common with each other than with their former parties. They probably do indeed. They are centrists.

Some of them stood a (good) chance of being de selected by their respective local party members. They will certainly be de-selected now.

Will their decision to set up a new grouping make the slightest difference to what happens over Brexit? Or the arithmetic of voting in Parliament next week when Mrs May is hoping to come back from Brussels with anything to encourage support for her "deal".

The one that a huge majority of leaver and remainer MPs voted against in January.

The new grouping will not affect the overall Parliamentary arithmetic.

All 11 will probably vote against the deal. They might have some effect on alternative amendments put forward. By whom and for what is anyone's guess.

Longer term and were Mrs May to call an election - her last was not a success - what effect would the group have?

In the 1980s, Labour's Parliamentary Party split and the resulting new Social Democratic Party initially captured over 20 percent of the vote in the 1983 general election.

Because of Britain's first past the post electoral system, it gained next to no seats. But it did seriously reduce the Labour vote. The Conservatives benefited for almost two decades.

And that is likely to be the effect of the new grouping if it survives past what happens with Brexit.

*David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer and special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

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