Westminster’s splitting headache: who will quit next?

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

The first thing to note about the ‘South Bank seven’ is that they are nothing like the four former Labour cabinet ministers who split the party in 1981, forming the SDP. The Gang of Four were national figures who between them had held every major office of state, bar the top job. Most of the MPs who announced from a swish venue on the South Bank that they were quitting Labour to set up a new outfit have little to no public profile. They’re more likely to be an answer on Pointless than stopped in the street for a photo.

While the most well-known member, Chuka Umunna, has high ambitions (his colleagues joke that he sees himself as the UK’s answer to Emmanuel Macron), his most senior role to date was as Ed Miliband’s shadow business secretary. His colleague Chris Leslie is the only one of the group to have held ministerial office — as a junior minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Nevertheless, their decision to set up the Independent Group has caused deep unease in Labour’s high command. The concern among Team Corbyn is that more MPs may follow. If a rival party develops, it could tap into Labour’s vote share and keep Corbyn out of Downing Street. One more Labour MP, Joan Ryan, has already quit the party to join the new group. Meanwhile, three Conservative MPs have also since joined in protest at their party’s Brexit stance.

The original splitters cited concerns over Labour’s Brexit position, the failure to tackle anti-Semitism and Corbyn’s unsuitability to be prime minister as the reasons behind their breakaway. There are many remaining Labour MPs who share all these concerns.

But how many more MPs defect depends as much on how the new group fares in its first few weeks as it does on Corbyn’s response. A lot of unhappy MPs from both main parties will stay put unless they can be convinced it is electorally viable. ‘There are MPs who would join if the group reached a substantial size, say 100, but that’s a long way off,’ says a Labour party insider.

To prove that they are more than just a flash in the pan, the group plans to build a grassroots movement. It will use crowdfunding to create a support base before taking the steps to become a new party. The next significant moment is supposed to be next week, when MPs vote on Brexit amendments. If Corbyn fails to show support for a second referendum, more defections could follow. ‘There are MPs who still think Jeremy will back a second vote. Once they realise he won’t, they will come over,’ says one moderate.

The Independent Group hopes to also win over Labour MPs who back Brexit. However, because it is currently formed of MPs who have called for a second referendum, it’s thought that Labour MPs in Leave seats won’t make the jump until Brexit has happened.

If the group can get to 36 MPs, it can replace the SNP as the biggest grouping in the Commons and win two questions a week at PMQs. At that point, it expects many more Labour MPs to jump. It’s thought that even Tom Watson could be convinced to join, which would be a watershed moment.

But right now that prospect seems very far away. ‘The problem is that no one likes Chuka,’ sighs a party source. While MPs feel for some of the splitters, they won’t jack it all in if they think the new party is a ‘Chuka vanity project’.

The fact that Tory MPs have now joined the group could also put off soft-left MPs. ‘There are some MPs who just want a party that is tribal Labour without the anti-Semitism, while others want En Marche!’ Some members of the shadow cabinet think Tory involvement is going to prove helpful to Corbyn. ‘If it’s a split like the SDP, it could be bad for us, but if it’s a pro-EU party with lots of Tories and Lib Dems, then it’s less bad.’

Meanwhile, the threat of deselection hangs over wavering Labour MPs. Some may decide they have little choice but to jump before being pushed. At this point, nothing is certain. ‘It’s going to be a long journey,’ admits one of the splitters.

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