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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

British MPs now have their chance to 'take back control' from Theresa May's hapless government

With the Conservatives and Labour in disarray, let's hope The Independent Group shakes British politics to its core

MPs of the newly formed Independent Group. Henry Nicholls / Reuters
MPs of the newly formed Independent Group. Henry Nicholls / Reuters

One of the mysteries in life, for me at least, has always been why people join political parties. The dictionary definition says a political party is “a group of people with similar political goals and opinions … to get candidates elected to public office”. Most of us have broadly similar goals – to live in a peaceful world, to watch our children thrive, to know that if we are sick or old we have a chance of being cared for. But signing up to a political party to make any of this happen has always seemed to involve impossible compromises on matters we cannot always agree on.

Just because, for example, a conservative leaning person likes lower taxes does not mean he or she needs to accept any particular view about climate change, animal rights or nuclear weapons. Just because a left-leaning person hopes for a more equal society does not mean that person necessarily is in favour or against more immigration or less investment in law and order.

Worse, the most vicious political hatreds I have come across are not between different political parties but within them.

A politician friend of mine, a blue-blooded Conservative, is privately scathing about the stupidity of some of his party colleagues. Another Conservative once told me that most MPs in his party were “weird” and quite a few of them “would have no friends” if they were not in politics. I cannot count the number of Labour MPs I have met who say their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is some variety of weak, dim, unfit to lead and easily manipulated and that he stopped entertaining new ideas after the 1970s. And yet on the surface, all these political party people share with their colleagues “similar political goals and opinions” to “get candidates elected to political office”. Well, not anymore.

The faultlines and animosities in British politics are well-known to journalists and politicians but now they have publicly exploded with significant defections from both the Conservative and Labour parties. The defecting MPs have (mostly) formed The Independent Group, or TIG.

They are united by moderate values. They think Brexit is a disaster and have called for another referendum. They think the leaders of their former parties are being manipulated by hardliners on the far right (Conservatives) or far left (Labour). They think British politics is broken and expect more MPs to join them.

Personally, I think they are correct in all of these assertions. But the question is whether any of this will make a difference.

In the short term, it might. It is quite remarkable that right now the UK has its worst-ever prime minister and worst leader of the opposition, amid the worst political crisis most of us can remember.

In reality, Brexit has broken British politics. The Conservative leader, Theresa May, seems utterly lost, unable to explain why she is pursuing a Brexit deal that will make us all poorer and that has failed to achieve majority support in parliament. Instead, like a scratched CD stuck in an old sound system, she mouths the same platitudes saying “let me be clear” about the “will of the people”.

There’s an old joke: 'Are you a member of any organised political party? No, mate, I’m Labour.' You could substitute the word 'Conservative' just as easily

The Labour leader, Mr Corbyn, has had an open goal to oppose Brexit by pointing out the flaws in the “will of the people” idea. It is based on a vote nearly three years ago, marred by cheating and significant lies. Moreover, many British voters have changed their minds after seeing that the Brexit chaos is costing Britain jobs and investment. Yet while nearly every TV channel, radio station, call-in show, newspaper, and casual conversation usually includes British people discussing Brexit, Mr Corbyn has focused his energies on everything from Venezuela to bus fares, while evading any clear policy on the biggest issue facing parliament in decades.

In the short term, TIG MPs have sent such a shock through Labour and the Conservatives that even the dimmest and most stubborn leaders might recognise they need to change course. If they do not, a disastrous no-deal Brexit could cause many more defections from the Conservatives, including top-level government resignations.

Mrs May, stuck in concrete, might crack. Mr Corbyn, bending in the wind, could be more flexible. He could easily change course since he appears not to have taken a position thus far.

But the TIG has a longer-term, more fundamental problem: Britain’s electoral system, which punishes independents and smaller parties. Without money, without a leader and without an agreed programme, the TIG is not yet a political party. Perhaps that is why I have sympathy for them. They appear to be like most normal people. Instead of binding themselves together and pretending they all agree, they are independent-minded and will vote together against Brexit but might disagree on other things.

There’s an old joke: “Are you a member of any organised political party? No, mate, I’m Labour.” You could substitute the word “Conservative” just as easily. Today, both parties are in a mess, so let’s hope the TIG MPs continue what they started and shake British politics to its core.

While predictions are difficult in such a febrile, bizarre atmosphere in Westminster, the next few days will be particularly important. MPs, mostly decent people who wish to do the best for the country and their constituents, could now have their own chance at “taking back control” – not from the European Union but from Mrs May’s hapless government.

We could see a no-deal Brexit finally ruled out and Article 50 extended to see more time for negotiations. We could also see a general election, although one thing that tends to unite parliamentarians of all parties is an unwillingness to face the voters if they do not have to.

That leaves what has always seemed to me the least worst choice – a public vote, another referendum on membership of the EU. Mrs May says it will be divisive. I think without another vote, the Brexit wounds will never heal.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

Updated: February 25, 2019 07:44 PM

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