At last! A week in politics that has not been entirely about the Brexit negotiations. Although, in fact, it largely has, but in a different way. Eleven (at the time of writing) defectors have decamped to the untenanted centre ground of British politics. The final collapse of the two main parties is under way. Or not, as the case may be.
It has been a strange spectacle. One day, seven Labour MPs say they’re leaving, not to start a new party, but just to hang out with each other. The next day, as an apparent afterthought, another Labour MP joins them. The day after, three Conservative MPs think they’d quite like to hang out with the others too. It is impossible to know if this is a spontaneous piece of street theatre or a well-plotted drama choreographed to look like a shambles.
We do know that they all like centrist politics and that they all like the EU. Meanwhile, the leader of the Liberal Democrats – a centrist party that also likes the EU – smiles benignly and appears unconcerned that none of the defectors has chosen to join his party.
Each group of defectors says the same two things: our party has been taken over by extremists; it is pursuing a Brexit policy that is harmful to the country. In this way, a symmetry is deliberately suggested and a narrative carefully constructed. But the symmetry is false and the narrative misleading. The Labour octet has left primarily because of party extremism. The Tory trio has left primarily because of Brexit. The alleged symmetry makes for a better story, but it is window dressing.
Let us dispose of Brexit first. It seems most unlikely that the defections will make any difference. The only two things that appear to matter now are the parliamentary arithmetic and the preparedness of Brussels to make concessions on the backstop. The independents have already been voting with their conscience in Parliament, with no regard for a party line. So which tag they wear, if any, makes no difference to the arithmetic.
It is the issue of extremism that needs examination. This is indeed a problem for both the Labour and Conservative parties, but to suggest it is an equal problem for each is absurd. The Labour Party has been captured by a hard left faction that practises systematic intimidation, and sometimes violence, towards its enemies within the party. This faction owns the leadership, the National Executive and a great many constituency parties. It possesses the means both to control the present and to prevent the future from being any different. Those MPs who have chosen to leave (and those who would like to, but haven’t yet) are correct in their conclusion that they have no future in the Labour Party.
None of this is true of the Conservative Party. It may become true, but there is a distance to go yet. The party has not been captured by a hard right faction. There have been some threats of deselection, but nothing that could be described as a systematic takeover. No faction owns the leadership, or the party’s national organisation, or the great majority of constituency parties. It is far from certain that the ERG will succeed in taking over the party when Theresa May steps down, and probable that it won’t.
Nor is it true to describe the ERG as a hard right faction in the way that Momentum is a hard left faction. Nobody who reads these blogs can doubt my dislike of the ERG, but it is surely more a group of single-issue fanatics than it is a coherent faction: the clue is in the ‘E’ of ERG. It may still be poisonous, but the poison will not necessarily infect the entire bloodstream.
One crucial question is what will happen to the ERG after Brexit, which has been its whole raison d’être up to now. This is one reason why it is so important for us to resolve Brexit now and get it out of the way. It is far from clear that, afterwards, the same group of people will coalesce around a more wide-ranging set of policies, or that they will retain anything like the same collective influence.
In other words, within the Conservative Party, but not in Labour, there is still everything to play for. Which makes it disappointing that three MPs who could have been an influential part of the game have chosen to take their ball away. It will be some irony if the choice of the next Conservative leader depends on the absence of their three votes. To those who say that this is unlikely, I would suggest that they refresh their memories of the 2001 leadership election. A single vote made all the difference then.
I also find it disappointing that the three Conservative refusniks have chosen to play fast and loose with history in their public statements.
Anna Soubry has said that “the right-wing, the hard-line anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every leader for the last 40 years are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe.” I part company with her on who is running the party, but that is a matter of opinion. Her statement that the awkward squad has destroyed every leader in the past 40 years, however, is categorically untrue. The awkward squad has certainly made life awkward for every Conservative leader, but it hasn’t destroyed them. Edward Heath was destroyed by his own arrogance; Margaret Thatcher by the fear that she had lost the plot; John Major mainly by the fact that, after 18 years in power, by 1997 there was an electable alternative. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were all destroyed by their failure to revive the party’s fortunes. Only David Cameron was destroyed by Europe, and only because he freely chose that possible outcome. Anna Soubry is rewriting the facts to suit her narrative.
Heidi Allen declared that “under David Cameron, [the party] was challenging the ‘nasty party’ image and proving we could … be a party of both competence and compassion.” Without debating the Cameron government, or whether there was an alternative to austerity, as a matter of record it introduced swingeing public sector cuts, trebled tuition fees and made a botched attempt at welfare reform. In the process, it helped to enable the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. Since then, Philip Hammond has rowed back on austerity, while Amber Rudd is unpicking the worst errors of the welfare scheme. Heidi Allen is also rewriting the facts to suit her narrative.
Leaving Europe aside, I believe in most of the same things as the 11 defectors. I might vote for their party, if one emerges. In many ways, I wish them well, and especially the eight Labour leavers. But I am irked by the Conservative trio, who have jumped ship well before it was holed, who could have helped to prevent what might happen but hasn’t yet, and who now feel compelled to make exaggerated statements so that the monumental step they have taken might appear to have had a commensurate justification.
No, you three. The Conservative Party hasn’t left you. You have left it.