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JANE MERRICK: Tiggers have raised the prospect of stopping Brexit altogether

CHICKEN COUP: The Independent Group's get-together at Nando's. Contributed photo. - Credit: Archant

The Tory and Labour defectors have acted as extraordinary political catalysts, says Jane Merrick. They have raised the prospect of stopping Brexit altogether.

A month ago I wrote an article in these pages about whether an insurgent centrist party could thrive in British politics, ending with this line: ‘A new party would be a huge risk to anyone considering it. But maybe, after the turbulence of Brexit and a gaping hole in the centre ground of British politics, it is a risk worth taking.’

My political forecasting skills are not always accurate – like many others, I got the outcomes of the EU referendum and the 2017 election completely wrong. But, this time last month, the rumours of a double-breakaway from Labour and the Tories were inescapable. It was clear something was about to happen – the only question was timing.

When the Independent Group did launch last week, those first seven former Labour MPs were indeed taking a huge risk in leaving their party to set up a new movement. The timing itself seemed incredibly hasty, because many in Westminster had predicted a split in Labour would happen after Brexit, allowing disaffected MPs from both sides of the EU debate to leave the party.

Before their bombshell announcement, they had tried to persuade more Labour MPs to join Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie and others, but couldn’t get past seven. And yet, given what has happened to Brexit since TIG began, it’s now clear that timing was right.

Of course, TIG had a bumpy start, and, more than a week on, they still face ongoing questions of what their policies will be and whether they can reconcile old party differences over tax and spending. But in just a few days, as they’ve picked up further defections, they have disrupted British politics in a way that could alter the entire course of Brexit.

Besides leaving their parties for a range of reasons, including anti-Semitism in Labour and xenophobia in the Conservatives, the new party was the result not only of both main parties’ toxic culture but also their leaders’ intransigence on Brexit. Theresa May had many opportunities to seek compromise across the House of Commons in order to get her deal through – which, let’s not forget, was agreed with Brussels all the way back in November.

After seeing off a right-wing coup from the European Research Group to unseat her as prime minister and Conservative leader back in December, she could have reached across the House and forged a consensus around a slightly tweaked version of the Withdrawal Agreement, but she chose instead to continue dancing to the ERG tune.

She could have dropped her all-or-nothing ultimatum of asking MPs to back her plan or face a no-deal, a strategy which, given her historic defeat in January by a margin of 230, clearly did not work. By keeping no-deal on the table, it transformed from being a scenario of last resort to an active proposition by the more hardline Brexiteers.

Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit ‘journey’ has been characterised by his own refusal to change course in the face of events. A reluctant Remainer who secretly wanted to leave the EU, the Labour leader made a virtue of having a vague enough policy on Brexit at the 2017 election. That may have worked to some extent on the doorstep – although not enough to win the election – but it was unsustainable for the main opposition party to not have a clear policy on the biggest challenge facing British politics for a generation.

Corbyn was never enthusiastic about Labour’s agreed position at party conference in Liverpool last autumn, which called for a second referendum if a general election could not be triggered.

The walkout of 11 MPs from Labour and the Tories has changed all that. Loyal outriders for both May and Corbyn spent the days after the creation of TIG dismissing its significance, engaging in hostile attacks against MPs who had left their parties because of that very hostility.

And yet the Prime Minister and Labour leader were stunned by the new disruptive force in British politics. With the threat of more defections to come, and with ministers and senior Labour figures openly discussing the possibility of resigning or leaving their parties as leverage for a change on Brexit, they had no choice but to change course.

Corbyn’s U-turn came first, with a major shift in policy which paves the way for Labour fully backing a second referendum. While it is still a staged process, tied to the failure of Labour’s own version of a Brexit deal in the Commons, it is nonetheless significant. The climbdown had the hand behind it of Labour heavyweights like deputy leader Tom Watson, shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry – all of whom have been pressing for a second referendum. But it is clear that they all urged Corbyn to make the policy shift in order to keep the remaining Labour party together for fear of more defections.

The prime minister’s U-turn is, of course, further reaching than Corbyn’s: by announcing this week that the House of Commons will have an option to delay Brexit until, possibly, the end of June, she has effectively shelved her take-it-or-leave it, deal or no-deal strategy. She may have insisted that no-deal remains on the table, and she may have said that a delay is not what she wants, but the U-turn is the most significant moment in the Brexit process since the Commons voted for Article 50.

It is true to say that the prime minister’s shift was also due to the forensic parliamentary work of the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, and of Conservative MPs Nick Boles and Sir Oliver Letwin, who put together legislative device to enable parliament to take control of Brexit if no-deal was off the table.

The Independent Group cannot claim all the credit for the way this helped to force the prime minister’s hand. And yet without those defections last week, pro-Remain Cabinet ministers like Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke would not have felt emboldened to publicly call for May to take no-deal off the table, or indeed those ministers including Margot James and Richard Harrington to threaten resignation if it could not be stopped.

So what happens next? According to TIG MPs, they are only just getting started. They think that the prime minister has not gone far enough in stopping a no-deal, and that it should 
be taken off the table altogether, and 
will use the prospect of a delay to 
Brexit to jump-start momentum for a second referendum. Their very existence has broken down the tribalism in Labour and the Tories; it has undermined what is left of the prime minister’s authority, and weakened Corbyn’s hitherto unshakeable grip on his party.

Yet, besides triggering the biggest disruption in British politics since the EU referendum itself, what else can TIG do?

Even if they attract more defections from Labour and Tories, they cannot magically change the parliamentary arithmetic and force the Commons to vote for a second referendum, because the numbers are still with May’s Tories, supported by the DUP.

They have scored some incredible polling figures – YouGov in the Times put them at an astonishing 18% earlier this week – and yet, after signalling they won’t elect a leader or form an official party until the end of the year, they are in danger of losing momentum, of being a political supernova. But by taking the biggest risk of their political careers, they have increased the likelihood that Brexit could be stopped altogether.

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