Brian Monteith: The Independent Group is a long way from becoming a credible political force

The choreographed creation of the Independent Group in the House of Commons last week is not a realignment of British politics. There is a long way to go for it to be anything like it.

For one thing there are, as yet, no Scottish or Welsh MPs involved, it is not a British political phenomenon but a peculiarly English affair.

Secondly there are, thus far, no big hitters involved. This is the defection of some colourful rent-a-quote self-publicists but no current or former cabinet secretaries have yet joined in the stampede that became a trickle.

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When the Social Democratic Party was established in 1981 by a break away from the Labour Party, the ringleaders were all seasoned former Cabinet members of stature and reputation beloved by BBC producers. Roy Jenkins had been Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and President of the European Commission (like Jean-Claude Junker now); David Owen had been Foreign Secretary; Shirley Williams Education Secretary and Bill Rodgers Transport secretary. They attracted 28 other Labour MPs and one Conservative, including three Welsh and two Scottish MPs. No one could doubt it was a British political force and that it carried serious government experience and intellectual heft.

If the likes of David Mundell was to join the independent group it may lead to realignment but also thwart BrexitIf the likes of David Mundell was to join the independent group it may lead to realignment but also thwart Brexit
If the likes of David Mundell was to join the independent group it may lead to realignment but also thwart Brexit

Today’s independent group enjoys no such reputation, but instead is characterised by politicians who originally stood for election in 2017 on manifesto commitments to respect the EU referendum result and deliver a Brexit that meant leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. They have been betraying those pledges without a blush of embarrassment or scintilla of shame pretty much since returning to Westminster. Many were also especially vociferous (and can be found on YouTube) rejecting calls for a second referendum but now campaign for it as a panacea for all our ills.

Thus we have a party-in-waiting claiming for themselves a “centrist” democratic legitimacy yet composed of MPs that have, each and everyone, already betrayed the solemn pledges made to their electorates at the last election – and now wish to overturn the biggest decision taken by voters in the UK since universal suffrage was achieved. Further, the group lacks serious politicians of reputation and proven leadership stature – and is limited in reach only to England.

Those are hardly convincing credentials for a new “third force” or what is necessary to “break the mould” and create a realignment where parties more accurately reflect competing policies or philosophies – rather than trying to be all things to all voters, as is the case currently.

Nor has the independent group brought a much needed and refreshing honesty to political debate. Instead Anna Soubry launched into invective based on a false analysis alleging the removal of Tory prime ministers by the party’s Eurosceptic right wing; the infiltration and takeover of Conservative Party associations pushing for deselections; and the Prime Minister being in the clutches of the pro-Brexit European Research Group MPs.

Even a quick glance at historical references show Thatcher was removed by her party’s Europhile wing; John Major had to resign after losing to Blair following his administration’s ERM-led recession and sleaze scandals; while David Cameron broke his promise to stay on after the EU referendum by walking out after losing it at the hands of the British people. There was no right wing putsch on any occasion. Writing on ConservativeHome website Mark Wallace systematically demolished Soubry’s claims about entryism as wholly lacking in evidence, while Theresa May’s premiership is without a doubt the most left-of-centre Tory administration since Harold Macmillan’s sixty years ago.

There is an obvious answer to the dead-end that confronts the independent group and that is for the Cabinet’s whingers that are forever threatening to resign from government over leaving without an EU-imposed deal to actually deliver on their threats – but not just to abandon their ministerial positions but their party too.

What’s stopping the likes of Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clarke and Scottish Secretary David Mundell following through to the logical conclusion of their position? There’s not a cigarette paper between them and Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen or Sarah Wollaston. Like Soubry, who previously defected to the SDP in 1981, Mundell left the Conservatives then too and was an SDP councillor until 1987. Is it loyalty to the Tory party or personal satisfaction from holding high office that tells them to continue as ministers? Mundell in particular has been here before, threatening to resign last year, then justifying remaining in his post, but with his credibility holed below the water line as a result.

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Of course banging on about leaving without a deal is all rather staged. The government has a deal, it’s just that parliament convincingly voted against it. Were Labour and the SNP to back the EU-May deal it could possibly pass. Despite all the name-calling directed at the Brexiteer Tories the fact that we are still talking about possibly leaving without a deal is entirely down to highly partisan party politics. Meanwhile, the Conservative loyalists in the European Reform Group – showing loyalty to their party’s manifesto they were elected on – have repeatedly sought ways to deliver a deal. The latest, a new version of the “Malthouse Compromise” tries to help the Prime Minister in her negotiations and ensure that even leaving without a deal can be achieved with goodwill on all sides.

By comparison, were Rudd, Mundell and their fellow murmurers, to stop crying wolf and join the independent group then we would at least get the realignment and formation of a true centrist party that many Blairites, Liberal Democrats and Tory Wets keep signalling should come about, but never quite arrives.

It would of course mean the collapse of the government, it would mean a general election and it would mean the Conservatives, Labour, and the Independent Group together with the Liberal Democrats, having to realign into three more coherent groups. They would need distinctly different offerings and be absolutely honest this time about what they would do about Brexit – as well as the economy, the housing shortage, benefit reforms and all the other issues that really matter to people.

They would need to say if they would have another EU referendum and demonstrate they would keep their word this time – and similarly state how they would treat demands for a second Scottish referendum too. Crucially, the realigned parties would need to say how they would form a government in the event of there being another hung parliament.

Brexit or realignment? Which choice will May’s critics choose?