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18th Feb 2019

Labour split: What on earth happens next?

The collapse of civilisation

Oli Dugmore

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) sits with Deputy Leader Tom Watson in the main hall on the first day of the Labour Party conference on September 24, 2017 in Brighton, England. The annual Labour Party conference runs from 24-27 September. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The collapse of civilisation, I guess

Good afternoon. Seven MPs have publicly, vociferously quit the Labour party. Angry about Labour’s Brexit stance and its approach to anti-Semitism, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey held a press conference to declare their departure.

The list of grievances is longhand for steaming discontent with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

The validity of those concerns has, though, already been called into question. During the press conference announcing the birth of the Independent Group, the splitters labelled the current Labour party “racist.”

Not three hours after that declaration, Angela Smith used an appearance on the BBC’s Politics Live to refer to BAME people as being a “funny tinge.”

However this is not a discussion of the principles, or lack thereof, of the Independent Group, or their appetite for career advancement. It is an assessment of what could possibly happen next which, in these Brexity and turbulent times, is difficult. Here goes.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Labour MP Luciana Berger announces her resignation from the Labour Party at a press conference on February 18, 2019 in London, England. Chuka Umunna MP along with Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Anne Coffey and Mike Gapes have announced they have resigned from the Labour Party and will sit in the House of Commons as The Independent Group of Members of Parliament. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

More Labour MPs revolt

This week was meant to be a parliamentary recess, providing MPs with a bit of a breather before they career down the precipice toward a no deal Brexit with the only handbrake available Theresa May’s draft deal. That break was cancelled but still the parliamentary agenda is quite barren.

It’s a good week to make this kind of announcement, basically.

Well, the announcement at the start of the week and drip feed through a string of other MPs as it goes on. How the Labour leadership respond to the rebellion is crucial here. Vitriol, anger and continued threats of deselection will likely instigate a host of other resignations. Compassion and empathy, on the other hand, and they might stay.

Given the tactical ineptitude of Corbyn’s Labour, which languishes behind a government led by the worst prime minister since Jim Callaghan, that’s still an option.

The key member of the shadow cabinet to watch on this front is deputy leader Tom Watson. A bellwether for the right of the Labour party. In his statement responding to the Independent Group split he said: “I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it.”

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 30: Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party arrives at BBC Birmingham ahead of an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on September 30, 2018 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Tory coalition

The naming of the gang of seven as “the Independent Group” is sufficiently nebulous to leave open the option of Tory rebels joining their cause. And by Tory rebels I basically mean Anna Soubry, who frequently shares a stage with Umunna at Peope’s Vote rallies and denounces the government’s pursuit of Brexit. Umunna called for MPs to leave their “parties” at the press conference.

While the Conservative party is groaning similar pained cries as the UK exit from the EU draws ever closer, its broad coalition is not quite at the same stress level as Labour. The Independent Group’s departure is multifaceted and encompasses its former party’s handling of Brexit and anti-Semitism as well as foreign and economic policy.

Tory differences and a potential resulting civil war largely come down to Brexit.

In addition, this splintering of political parties is currently limited to and self-contained within the Labour party. It would be a massive move to open the door to the storm raging well outside the Tory tent at this point. For Anna Soubry, or similar, to make that move, would be a brutal attack on the prime minister and Conservative government, embroiling them in a crisis that isn’t really theirs.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Conservative MP Anna Soubry (L), Labour MP Chuka Umunna (2L), Labour MP Chris Leslie (3L), Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston (3R), Labour MP Gavin Shuker (3R), Labour MP Luciana Berger (2R) and Conservative MP Phillip Lee (R) speak with the media outside the Cabinet Office following a Brexit meeting with Theresa May's Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell and David Liddington MP on January 21, 2019 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to attempt to convince Conservative Brexiteers and DUP MPs to back her current withdrawal deal by resolving Irish backstop concerns. Her attempts to reach a cross-party agreement last week were thwarted after the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted on the removal of leaving the European Union with "no deal" as an option in the negotations on how to proceed with Brexit, before he would talk to the Government. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The Lib Dems rise from the ashes

Tim Farron has said he is “looking forward to working” with the Independent Group. If Chuka’s gang resolve to fight by-elections, which they are currently insisting they won’t, they will need the structure and campaign machinery developed for decades by a mainstream party to have any chance of success.

Given the Remain/second referendum stance of all of the group, the Lib Dems seem a natural fit. Time to come out of the hinterland, Vince.