Whichever way any sensible person thinks about Brexit, a disaster looms at the end of March. Nearly three years on from the Referendum and the decision to trigger Article 50 Parliament and the country are no clearer as to what they want from leaving Europe, and why they want it, than they were in 2016. Division is everywhere. Unhappiness, uncertainty and disillusionment are as rife today among electors as they are across the political spectrum.
When asked by the pollsters, a significant majority of UK electors now say they favour not leaving at all. That does not necessarily mean they would actually vote that way in a new referendum if there were to be one but it is worth noting. Meanwhile in Parliament the Conservative Party is split in three directions – leave at any price: leave but keep as many of the advantages as possible; or….don’t leave at all. But it is not even as clear as that what Brexit package they really want because they also see themselves inextricably bound by a referendum vote cast outside parliament in which ‘the people have spoken’. Thank you, David Cameron for that 1930s or South American instrument of so called democracy!
As for the Labour Party, to oldies like me it is beginning to look like 198O all over again as a ‘Gang of 14’ (or thereabouts) senior Labour MPs threaten to walk away from their long time anti-EU leader Jeremy Corbyn and his Socialist /‘Momentum’ colleagues to form a new more ‘centrist’ grouping of their own. Unlike 1980 the group does not contain any very obvious leaders of the stature of, say, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, but it could be a viable entity and, if it kept away from that unpopular word ’centrist’ it could find that it had more in common with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens than most Labour MPs like to pretend to have now.
However this approach raises two important questions: (a) whether such a breakaway would make a halfpenny’s worth of difference to the attempts to achieve a remotely acceptable Brexit deal and (b) whether a breakaway of Labour MPs would, without the help of any other grouping or party, make any serious impact on voters in the general election that would almost certainly soon follow the outcome of March 29.
The answer to the first question is a very quick ‘No’. If this group of mostly sensible Labour MPs has not managed to carry Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of his party in votes up to now, they are hardly likely to do so as breakaways within the remaining few weeks. They will still be occupying seats in the Commons but they will have no parliamentary status as speakers unless it specially granted. In fact in most instances the Speaker will be obliged to ensure that they maintain a vow of silence.
When it comes to performance in a general election, the 1980s experience of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the ultimate merger in 1988 of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats are of far more relevance.
In the second part of this two part article, Adrian turns to the history of the last time a group split from the Labour Party.
* Adrian Slade was President of the Liberal Party at the time of the merger with the SDP in 1988.