What Brexit And The Independent Group Tell Us About The End Of Consensus Politics

What Brexit And The Independent Group Tell Us About The End Of Consensus Politics
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Two prime ministers, one General Election, three Brexit secretaries, multiple Cabinet resignations, one no confidence motion, eight defections (so far), one new political party, and a partridge in a pear tree.

A rundown of some of the incidents triggered as a result of the Brexit Referendum makes for interesting reading. That the list above is by no means exhaustive highlights just how much has happened during three years which would make even film director Michael Bay take stock and think “maybe this is just a little too action-heavy”.

But the changes keep on coming. And we sit a month away from the withdrawal date (or B-Day as it’s being termed) and we have former Conservative and Labour high-flyers deciding that the politics of their parties are no longer for them. We have little indication of what a final Withdrawal Agreement will look like – if there is one at all. And the divisions between Leave and Remain voters are as entrenched as ever. After all this, negotiations for a future trading relationship with the EU should be some of ‘the easiest in human history,’ right?

The formation of the Independent Group is an interesting turn of events, with Brexit at its heart, but equally with some interesting points to make about the changes in UK politics. During the era of Blair, Brown and Cameron centrist politics ruled the roost, we saw general consensus from the major political parties on a lot of issues and leaders concede ground to pacify the electorate. Since then we’ve seen Jeremy Corbyn’s election create a lurch to the Labour left, splitting the party in more ways than one. We’ve seen Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ leadership look imminently weak and unstable under the weight of an ill-judged General Election call, a reduced majority and impromptu dance routines. That’s before we even get to the B-word.

We’ve also seen Liberal Democrat representation in the Houses of Parliaments slashed to the bone. Where we once had a middle ground we now have a polarised political landscape, both through our elected representatives and the voting population. Although it’s worth pointing out that polarisation is not unique to UK politics – the likes of Trump and Sanders in the US and Le Pen and Sanchez in Europe show us that.

But while common ground seems scarce Brexit also remains as divisive as it ever was. It’s interesting to consider that in an era of consensus politics the Leave vote actually came as a bombshell, largely because no one in mainstream politics expected it. Voting patterns were largely predictable, polls rarely deviated from the outcome and vote-winning policies gave clear routes for quick wins. That’s probably why Cameron felt comfortable calling the Referendum. It’s also probably why he resigned immediately after the result. Gone was the bubble of political sanctity that had existed for two decades since Tony Blair used a track from Professor Brian Cox’s DReam for a political broadcast that seems even more bizarre now than it did then. It was still bizarre then.

In the run up to the referendum, David Cameron said the vote would be one of the biggest decisions this country would face in our lifetimes. Flash forward three years and we’ve heard the breakaway eight describe leaving their respective political parties to join the Independent Group as a similarly tricky decision. But politics itself now seems to be littered with people making difficult choices. And with more Parliamentary voting to come, there is no end to this in sight. Although the defectors have been quick to cite major political differences with the overall direction of their parties, it is difficult to shake the sense that Brexit lies at the heart of the move. During a recent interview, Chuka Umunna described Brexit as the biggest issue facing the UK since the Second World War. And it’s certainly continuing to dominate discussions from Westminster and boardrooms to homes and pubs across the UK.

So what does this tell us? Not a great deal about Brexit itself, but enough to know that consensus politics seems to be being eroded, that political parties and individual MPs seem more determined than ever to stick to their own beliefs and principals and less willing to concede ground. And that this has wider implications for the future of our politics. That it took a group of centrist MPs to form their own group to ram that point home is as illustrative of that point as it is ironic. Will the Independent Group shake up politics as has been suggested? I’m not sure. But its formation certainly shows the increasing polarised situation British politics finds itself in a month out from B-Day.


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