In my last blog, in December, I observed the stalemate over Brexit...
Policy differences are normal in democratic politics but Brexit has broken down the usual party loyalties, making British politics increasingly unpredictable.
For some MP’s loyalty to their party comes second to their commitments for or against Brexit. Could this lead to a reshaping of party politics and even the emergence of new parties?
At least three distinct groups have emerged in the Conservative party. The European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees Mogg has at least 60 members and the tacit support of ex-Ministers Boris Johnson and David Davis. They resolutely oppose the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan and advocate a ‘hard’ Brexit. They are producing their own policy statement which could split the party at its annual conference at the end of September.
A second smaller group including the former Ministers Dominic Grieve and Nicky Morgan respect the Referendum result but advocate a ‘soft’ Brexit. They managed to pull together a cross-party majority to secure for MPs a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal, contrary to the Government’s wishes. This group are not enthusiastic rebels but some of them might leave the party if either Johnson or Mogg were to become party leader.
The largest group of Conservative MPs are loyal to Theresa May. This includes most of the Ministers though some of them are known to have sympathies with the other groups. The intriguing question is how they would split if May were to be forced to resign. Ten Ministers have resigned in the last few months, mostly because they opposed the Chequers Plan.
The Parliamentary Labour party is equally divided and not just on the Brexit agenda. A majority of them rejected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader in 2016 only to see him re-elected by the national party. That division was not primarily about Brexit but 74 Labour MPs, including six front benchers, ignored the party whip to vote to keep the UK in the single EU market. At the same time six backbenchers, including Kate Hoey, Frank Field and John Mann, voted with the Government in Brexit votes.
The most interesting group is a cross party group of MPs, including the former Conservative Ministers Justine Greening and Anna Soubry together with Labour’s Chuka Umunna, who are campaigning for a second referendum. They are effectively in rebellion against their respective parties neither of which wants another referendum.
Apart from Soubry they are not talking about creating a new Centre party but they are backing the People’s Vote Movement which wants us all to have a vote on the final Brexit deal. This movement was launched in a London rally in June. That was followed by other rallies in Bristol and Edinburgh with three more to follow in Newcastle, Cambridge and Cardiff. A poll following the first two rallies showed a swing to support for remaining in the EU 51% to 35% but critics will say the sample was too small and unrepresentative.
The Liberal Democrat MPs are united in opposing a ‘hard’ Brexit and their leader Vince Cable is keen to work cross party to achieve that. The SNP, faithful to the Scottish vote in the 2016 referendum are against Brexit and advocate remaining in the single market and the customs union.
How deep and lasting are these divisions? There is no doubt that Brexit has opened a gulf between the right wingers and the centrists in the Conservative party whilst Labour has an equivalent divide between the left wing Cobynites and a larger group of centrists. It remains doubtful whether this creates the climate for the emergence of a new Centre party. The history of the Social Democrat Party, founded in 1981 by a break-away group of 32 Labour MPs and one Conservative, inhibits today’s MPs from trying that again.
What happens between now and next March will determine what Brexit really means but its impact on British politics is likely to last a great deal longer. Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, has called for a cross-party “government of national unity” to negotiate the Brexit deal. It is probably too late for that but it might be the only way to heal the divisions after next March.