London, United Kingdom – A flurry of defections by MPs from the United Kingdom’s two main political parties has raised the prospect of a realignment in British politics as the clock ticks towards the deadline for the country to leave the European Union.
The breakaway “Independent Group” created by 11 MPs from both the opposition Labour and ruling Conservative parties threatens to upend the normal rules of politics as divisions over Brexit deepen.
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Nonetheless, the development does not change the parliamentary arithmetic – and Brexit remains on schedule to take place on March 29 unless MPs force Prime Minister Theresa May to delay.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University London, told Al Jazeera: “These resignations are a crack in the dam and we might see a trickle, to begin with, but then again dams can burst quite quickly.”
“We know both parties are polarised, there is a gap among voters, neither party seems particularly competent and neither is seen as having the national interest at heart – so there is actually a lot of space for politicians who can convince people that they do.”
For the Labour MPs it was anti-semitism first, and then Brexit; for the Conservative MPs it is about Brexit, and about it undoing the modernisation of the Conservative Party.
The resignations began on Monday when seven Labour MPs quit.
Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey were on the right of the party and hostile to changes under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. They were followed on Wednesday by an eighth MP, Joan Ryan.
Then MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston left the Conservatives on Wednesday saying the party had been hijacked by hardline advocates of Brexit who were “destroying” efforts to modernise it.
For some time analysts have been predicting splits of this kind as divisions over Brexit create new tensions in British politics.
The MPs’ reasons for defecting will be a key factor that determines the fate of this new, independent grouping and whether it moves to form a new party.
The Labour breakaways were motivated strongly by allegations of anti-semitism among party members and Corbyn, a long-standing advocate of Palestinian rights, with Brexit just one factor in their decision.
They are angry at Corbyn’s apparent efforts to block a new referendum that in theory could reverse the decision to leave the EU taken in a plebiscite in 2016.
Bale said: “The Labour split was more inevitable than the Conservative split; there is so much unhappiness on the Labour benches with Jeremy Corbyn for so many reasons that it was almost unavoidable because there is no possibility of getting rid of him before the next election.”
“Those MPs are deeply politically and personally upset with what has happened to the Labour Party under his leadership.”
For the Conservative defectors, a key motive was anger at May’s Brexit strategy. Critics say she is trying to run down the clock until March 29 without a potential EU withdrawal deal in order to compel MPs to back her own proposals.
May’s apparent appeasement of hardline Brexiters in a lobby within the party called the European Research Group (ERG) has disappointed many colleagues.
David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool, said that on balance, the splinter group does not represent the tectonic shift that some had predicted.
“It doesn’t seem like a grand realignment because these MPs are not where the empty space in British politics is.”
He added that although the defections were more damaging to the Conservative Party because it is in power, the Labour MPs were taking a moral stand.
“For the Labour MPs it was anti-semitism first, and then Brexit; for the Conservative MPs it is about Brexit, and about it undoing the modernisation of the Conservative Party.”
“If Brexit wasn’t an issue or if there was a different policy that wasn’t beholden in their eyes to the ERG, they probably wouldn’t have defected.”
The rebels’ next steps
These ideological differences will be significant in determining the rebels’ next steps.
Registering as a new political party would be a high-stakes gamble in Britain’s political system, where newcomers find it notoriously difficult to survive.
Previous splits of this magnitude have ended in tears for the splinter groups. In 1981, for example, leading Labour figures quit to launch the Social Democratic Party – which was massacred in the subsequent general election.
The Liberal Democrats, an existing party with 11 MPs that claims the centre-ground of British politics, could take advantage of the latest resignations – or find itself being squeezed.
Jeffery said: “Where the Independent group goes next is important. Will they act like a party or will they act simply as a pressure group and then, come the next election, will they try to defend their own constituencies?”
Moreover, Brexit has already spawned new parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigned successfully to quit the EU but failed to win any parliamentary seats.
If it looks as if this has captured the public imagination then it may have more legs than some cynics imagine
Ideological differences and a harsh political reality could, therefore, make a new alliance fragile – although not without influence.
Bale said: “I don’t think it will prosper unless more MPs follow, but those who might be tempted both in the Labour and Conservative ranks will be watching both leaders’ reactions to this – particularly when it comes to Brexit.”
“They will also be keeping a careful eye on opinion polls because if after some Conservatives have joined this group you begin to see a kind of snowball effect, then other MPs might think it is worth jumping ship.”
“So it really depends on the kind of excitement and momentum that this generates. If it looks as if this has captured the public imagination then it may have more legs than some cynics imagine.”
Defections impact Brexit?
Despite the buzz that the defections have generated, however, they do not change the parliamentary arithmetic over Brexit.
Jeffery said: “These are MPs who were already willing to vote against the government on key Brexit votes, so in terms of the arithmetic it’s not significant.”
“On Brexit, the power is all in Jeremy Corbyn’s hands and with the ERG at the moment.”
“The clock is ticking anyway and they have a fight on their hands to stop Brexit, but they will have an even bigger fight come the general election. They face a very steep uphill battle.”
Nonetheless, Bale believes the new group could succeed in influencing the Brexit stance taken by both party leaders.
He said: “The mathematics may not change but I think it does change the morale in both parties.”
“Both May and Corbyn will now have to think whether their Brexit positions may actually increase the chances of other MPs leaving.”