Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 October 2019

Is Brexit-addled Britain ready for politics of a different hue?

Conservative and Labour party deserters are challenging a centuries-old political system under strain

From left: former British Conservative Party MPs Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston in London after announcing their defection. Simon Dawson / Reuters
From left: former British Conservative Party MPs Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston in London after announcing their defection. Simon Dawson / Reuters

The break-up of the British political establishment, straining under the pressures of Brexit, gathered pace last week.

Whatever the fate of the political figures leaping into the unknown, a far-reaching impact on the nation's political structure is inevitable.

The traditional claim for rebellion within British political parties is that the mould of power can be broken.

Yet the ruthless efficiency underpinning the two-party system is a wonder to behold. It has persisted for centuries. A voting system, known as first past the post, favours the duopoly and has ensured the survival of the system since the introduction of universal suffrage more than a century ago. Moreover, the political terrain has been defined by charismatic leaders at the helm of the two main parties.

But the system is now at its lowest ebb, without the serendipity of good leadership on either side. Murmurs that the iron-cast mould can be broken are becoming ever more credible. If so, the knock-on effect will transform global politics even more drastically than has been surmised this week – and that is even if Jeremy Corbyn, the far-Left Labour leader, is denied a spell in 10 Downing Street.

The last spirited attempt to tear up the two-party hegemony was in the 1980s, when the Social Democrats and Liberals banded together and formed a progressive third party. Having quit the Labour party in 1981, the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – demanded "a new start in British politics" and formed an alliance with the Liberal party, led by David Steel. The latter went so far as to announce at the Liberal party conference that MPs should "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government".

However, in the wake of the Falklands War, which restored the Conservative party's grip on power, the SDP-Liberal Alliance fell far short of its goals in the 1983 general election and soon fell into disarray.

The faces from the Labour backbenches emerging to launch the Independent Group earlier this week won’t have surprised close observers. Nor will those of Conservative MPs who defected a day later. Both sides had already been part of a joint delegation at talks at the cabinet office just weeks earlier. Rumours of more defections continue to swirl around Westminster and mass ministerial resignations are expected soon.

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

Prime Minister Theresa May thus stands on a rapidly fraying tightrope as she tries to hash out a new compromise with Brussels ahead of another deadline for a key vote on Wednesday.

Brexit caused the split but in raising the likelihood of a general election, the impact of the defections could stretch further.

A far more likely outcome would be a rainbow alliance of liberals, defectors and Scottish nationalists, plus Labour

The decision not to launch a party but a platform of newly fledged independents is a clever form of new politics. It owes some inspiration to Emmanuel Macron, who defined a new path for the French when traditional power brokers fell away in 2016.

The British situation poses different challenges from republican France. The format of Brexit at the end of March is still up for debate. A parliamentary system cannot be swept away as easily as a presidential system.

For both those reasons, the Independent Group founders are, in effect, adopting a “lily pad option” for MPs looking to move away from the existing system but not ready for a fully formed alternative. The concept is similar to frogs hopping across a pond on floating vegetation.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes launching the Independent Group. Henry Nicholls / Reuters
Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes launching the Independent Group. Henry Nicholls / Reuters

The doubters thrown up three main questions for the defectors. Firstly, that this is simply a last throw of the dice by diehard supporters in favour of remaining in the EU. Secondly, the new movement is clearly not doing enough to define a new narrative, as Mr Macron did to reset the terms of the debate, in its own favour. And thirdly, as the eminent political scientist John Curtice has argued, the party needs a leader to seize the momentum as it bursts on the political scene.

One recently retired senior Whitehall official recently remarked that Britain had enjoyed a remarkably settled political landscape since the Falklands. A shift from the axis that included weather-makers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron upends those assumptions.

Is the world ready for British politics of a different hue? Possibly not. Westminster has been an active diplomatic, military and developmental player under strong, single-party governments until this decade.

The current government argues that there is scope for Britain to have a more active global presence. It has established new military ties in the Gulf and boldly stuck to its guns in sending the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the contested South China Sea, despite protests from Beijing.

Yet its incompetence in delivering Brexit presents an opportunity for Mr Corbyn to win. His pro-Caracas, pro-Tehran political sympathies would shred much of Britain's current foreign policy, including the special relationship with the US.

A far more likely outcome would be a rainbow alliance of liberals, defectors and Scottish nationalists, plus Labour. Britain would then almost certainly reorientate to an internationalist stance closer to that currently on display in Germany. Recent politics in Berlin over arms export controls show foreign policy cannot be permanently ring-fenced from changing domestic sentiments if mainstream parties lose direction.

Long-held assumptions and interests are coming into question. Brexit is just one of the factors challenging the status quo but it certainly won't be the last.

Updated: February 25, 2019 07:44 PM

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