The resignation of the party whip by the veteran Labour MP Frank Field is the latest sign of a fundamental splintering of British politics.
Field, who has represented Birkenhead for nearly 40 years, accused the Labour leadership of becoming a “force for anti-semitism in British politics”, pointing to “a series of attempts by Jeremy [Corbyn] to deny that past statements and actions by him were anti-semitic”. He added that Britain had “fought the Second World War to banish these views from our politics” and that “it saddens me to say that we are increasingly seen as a racist party”.
He also complained of a “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation” in the party and a failure of the leadership to take effective action which “at worst ... serves to legitimise appalling levels of bullying and intimidation of lifelong Labour supporters”. For Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader who has sought to keep Corbynites and centrists together, it was a “major wake-up call” for the party that demonstrated its “deep divisions”.
Corbyn has spoken with a soft voice against anti-semitism in his party, just as his support for remaining in the EU was noticeably low key. And just as some suspect he privately backed Brexit, respected figures like Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, and now Field are reaching the conclusion that the Labour leader is anti-semitic – or, at least, is capable of expressing anti-semitism, which is a thin distinction to make.
On the other side of the Commons’ aisle, the Conservatives are almost equally split, with Anna Soubry MP taking hardline Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg to task, while Theresa May tries not to get too involved in the public bickering for fear of hastening her party’s descent into a full-scale civil war. Boris Johnson’s recent inflammatory remarks about clothes worn by some Muslim women were condemned most vociferously by those with his own party.
As the chasms within Labour and Conservative parties grow, their leaders seem intent on tip-toeing around the edges. And, for all their sound and fury, most MPs have remained followers, dismissing talk of a new centrist ‘Sensible Party’.
May could yet lead this country over a no-deal Brexit cliff-edge; Corbyn stands accused of adhering to or tolerating anti-semitism. MPs meekly following such leaders may live to regret it.