At the end of January, the traditional half-term for our Parliamentarians – or recess, as it is commonly known – was cancelled. It was deemed improper for MPs to be heading home for time with their families, or jetting off on holiday, at a time of grave national crisis. With the Brexit clock ticking closer to March 29, MPs were firmly told they’d be staying put.
We are now in the ‘cancelled recess’, but where is the Brexit business? It turns out the ‘firmly’ wasn’t communicated with much gusto, and many MPs have headed off after the chief whip Julian Smith gave them the nod and Labour followed. Both parties subsequently put their MPs on a one-line whip – in other words, a very long leash – and Parliament
You can’t really blame those who have left Westminster despite the gentle plea to stay. For those MPs who have stuck around have been treated to a ‘general debate on sport’, amongst other issues. Forcing MPs to stay would have certainly been useful had a Brexit deal been ready to put before Parliament. But, of course, promising an all but replaced backstop was never going to materialise, and so Theresa May is predictably asking us all to indulge her pointless diplomatic excursions a few weeks longer.
And so we wait. Lobby journalists are on no such recess-but-not-recess, and I expect some were relieved this week when the opportunity arose to turn their heads slightly from the pointless posturing of our government and toward some real genuine political movement. On Monday, seven Labour MPs quit the party, citing Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of Brexit and the anti-Semitism crises as the two main reasons for their departure. Two days later, three Conservative MPs quit their party. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen wrote to Theresa May to say that they, too, were no longer comfortable staying in their party.
It was no secret to anybody that these Labour MPs – Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Anne Coffey, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Mike Gapes – could be on their way out sometime soon. They were joined by Joan Ryan two days later. All have been vocal critics of Corbyn’s leadership and have made no effort to hide their disdain at the his handling of the Brexit and anti-Semitism crises. Nonetheless, this was the most significant shift in British politics in a generation, and the timing and manner of their departure could have huge implications for the direction our country takes over the coming months.
That our two-party system is unfit for purpose is not a particularly new or controversial view to have. The Liberal Democrats came pretty close to redress with our 2011 AV referendum, but Britain rejected their plea and made our tentative peace with FPTP. However, when the two main parties stop being broad-church coalitions capable of accommodating a range of different views, and instead insist on unwavering loyalty to a singular position, this inevitably brings the fundamental flaws of our system into sharp focus.
The decimation of pluralism within Conservative and Labour is well underway. The issue which has done most to expose and heighten these fractures with such clarity has been Brexit. Theresa May is at the behest of the ERG members in her party. Given the choice of reaching across the House to find a solution, she turned instead to a small group of extremists in her party in one last ditch attempt to find a majority for her sinking deal. She is likely to fail. Meanwhile Corbyn ignores the vast majority of his members and supporters who want a people’s vote on Brexit but are facing the prospect of their leader accommodating a deeply damaging Conservative Brexit which will hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest.
What impact could this have on the campaign for a people’s vote? There’s no doubt the Independent Group’s voices include some of the strongest supporters of giving the public a final say. There’s little doubt, either, that Brexit played a significant part in their respective decisions to quit. Could this dilute the pro-European force within Labour pushing for them to honour their conference policy and move to supporting a referendum, now that a general election is off the table and their own proposed deal has been exposed as fantasy?
I don’t think so. Before Monday, the Labour leadership had the facts and they still resisted backing a people’s vote. With their party now falling apart at the seams the pressure to make serious changes will only increase. And the threats of ignoring them are now playing out before our eyes. Corbyn can still be on the right side of history. Backing a people’s vote is his last chance and, as the last few days have shown, it might be the only way of keeping his party together.