TIG could play a key role in the country’s future – or it could flop
You can only admire the guts of those MPs who have left their parties to join The Independent Group. But there are many outstanding questions that must be answered, writes Tony Grew
Last week we were supposed to be in recess. Instead, we have seen some of the most memorable few days in politics since the referendum. Last Monday seven Labour MPs broke ranks, declaring they had had enough of Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism and were going to form their own group. A day later, another MP, Joan Ryan, had joined them.
On Wednesday the Tories responded. The ‘Three Amigos’ – Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry – took their seats on the opposition benches. This was real. While they were relatively low on numbers, there had been a definitive break from the old system.
There were inevitably teething problems. Angela Smith misspoke on the subject of BAME people and apologised. Heidi Allen declared that if they were successful there would not be a Conservative party left to return to. But for all that, there was euphoria, coupled with an odd sense of dread among MPs about what it could mean for them, for their party and for the country.
Despite the celebratory rhetoric of last week, things will become more serious and more perilous for those 11 MPs. TIG is not a political party. It will not be eligible for Short money, even it becomes one.
There are questions about its funding and the lack of transparency so far. What about John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis? Some advocate their immediate entry, others argue that the investigations into their alleged behaviour should continue.
Its policy on Europe is clear: a second referendum. Its policy on everything else is harder to discern. Where, for example, does it stand on nuclear weapons? On HS2? On Venezuela? The group’s website declares them to be in favour of a “diverse, mixed social economy”, protecting the environment, with fair play and secure employment. These are admirable aspirations, and their desire to reach out across outdated divides is also welcome, but there is little to grasp onto.
The Lib Dems are delighted, naturally, to have so many new allies. But what if they get bigger? What if they end up with 40 MPs, and usurp both the Lib Dems and the SNP and become the second-largest opposition party?
The Independents are only a few days old, and I admire their guts in leaving their parties to form this new group. One would require a heart of stone not to have been moved in some way by the long, damning letter written by Joan Ryan, where she describes her frustration at the “all-consuming narrative founded on rage, betrayal and the hunt for heretics” and damns “Jeremy Corbyn and his Stalinist clique”.
Anna Soubry has also been compelling in her narrative of a party shifting to the right, “exacerbated by blatant entryism” and her calls for something better. The conventional view is that the group firstly needs to become a political party, secondly needs to pick a leader and thirdly needs to work out a manifesto, if it is to be taken seriously at Westminster.
The unconventional view is that, in tandem with the Lib Dems, it can influence policy and advocate for the centre-ground in British politics while retaining their own identities as independent MPs.
It is not clear which direction the group will take. One side seems to have had enough of Jew-baiting in the Labour party, while others are happy enough to support the government when it chimes with their values.
Europe is the over-riding policy, but if they want to be more than a fringe group, to become a political party, there will need to be some coherence in their approach to politics. Anyone who has sat through a Lib Dem meeting where policy is debated will know there is a long, frustrating and hard road ahead.
We can all agree to a greater or lesser extent that politics is at the moment broken. The real question is, can you fix it?
None of this is to take away from the warm feelings the new members of The Independent Group must be experiencing. There are major, in fact existential, questions to be answered in the coming weeks.
All is still to play for. We could leave on 29th March with no deal, with the prime minister’s deal or with something in between. A second referendum seems remote, especially at this late stage, but nobody can predict with complete accuracy what will happen in the days to come.
The Independent Group could play a pivotal role in deciding our country’s future, or it could flop, become an irrelevant rump, split on everything except Europe, destined to be a mere footnote in the history of Brexit. Either way, I applaud the bravery of those who decided to throw their careers into the mix, on the promise of nothing more concrete than it might turn out for the best.
29th February is an unusual date, as it only occurs during a leap year. This year is not a leap year, but that didn't stop the Leader of the Commons handing out information that the House would not be sitting on that day. It was later replaced with the correct 1st March. “Perhaps this is not so much running down the clock, but extending February forever so we never get to a meaningful vote,” said Pete Wishart. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom replied: “I put that deliberately on his paper in the hope that he might think that I might propose to him.”
“He paid the ultimate price for doing the job that he loved, and we owe him a profound debt of gratitude for his bravery,” said the Speaker in a short statement on PC Keith Palmer. It is almost two years since he died defending parliament against a man who had killed and injured people on Westminster Bridge before launching his attack. Harriet Harman, Mother of the House, said we should be “sad for his loss and grateful for his service”. There is now a permanent memorial to PC Palmer just outside the Palace. Nobody who was here on that terrible day will forget.
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