Does The Independent Group Really Break The Westminster Mould? Forgive Me For Feeling Cynical

When you’ve got a former Labour MP who somehow dredges up the words ‘funny-tinged’ when she’s discussing voters from ethnic minorities, I reckon a hefty dollop of scepticism is definitely required.
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And then there were twelve. (Or maybe still eleven, because at the time of writing, Ian Austin, the latest ex-Labour MP to tear up his party card, hasn’t quite decided whether he’s going to join the TIG-gers, aka The Independent Group.)

But was The Independent Group really the best name the Band of Very Unhappy MPs could come up with? Why couldn’t they be more bold and call themselves the Nice People Group? Or The Sensible Group? Or something even more vacuous?

I know it’s easy to mock. But after weeks, nay months, of their shilly-shallying, surely we are entitled to expect something a bit more, well, I don’t know, a bit more inspirational?

I acknowledge they had a problem. The obvious choice – The New Party – has been tried before, in the 1930s, by Oswald Mosley (a former Labour MP, as it happens), and it didn’t turn out well.

The truth, I fear, is that they couldn’t choose the most honest name for themselves because it would immediately reveal the paucity of what they agree on. The Remainers Party? Honest, yes, because that is what they do agree on. An electoral winner? Hmm, maybe not.

Yes, I know I sound cynical. But when you’ve got a former Labour MP whose sub-conscious somehow dredges up the words ‘funny-tinged’ when she’s discussing voters from ethnic minorities, and a former Conservative MP who thinks George Osborne’s austerity programme was a jolly good idea, well, somehow I reckon a hefty dollop of at least scepticism is definitely required.

I wondered, as I heard them lay out their stalls this week, why they hadn’t decided to join the Green Party. Nice people, hearts in the right place, anti-Brexit, what’s not to like? (Unless you live in Brighton, where they ran the council between 2011 and 2015, but that’s another story.) And it could help them tap into the support of all those soon-to-be voters who walked out of school last week to demonstrate their concern about climate change.

But then I heard the Greens’ co-leader Siân Berry tell the BBC’s Politics Live programme that all eleven of The Independent Group had voted for the expansion of Heathrow airport. So that put the kibosh on that idea. (I assume cuddling up to the Lib Dems would be regarded as a bad move on the grounds that the brand is still too seriously tarnished by the party’s participation in the Cameron-led coalition.)

The group’s statement of principles is so anodyne that it would make a manifesto promoting the values of motherhood and apple pie seem dangerously edgy in comparison. ‘Our country faces big challenges which urgently need solving. Our aim is to reach across outdated divides and build consensus to meet those challenges. We will make decisions based on evidence – and arrive at them by debating with tolerance and respect.’

(As of Friday morning, by the way, the Statement of Independence on their website still began with the words ‘We are leaving the Labour party …’, which will be a bit of a shock to the self-styled Three Amigos, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, who are all under the impression that they were, until this week, members of the Conservative party.)

Yes, it’s early days. We are promised more high-level defections, even a leader perhaps, and some actual policies in the days to come. If some of Mrs May’s ministers decide to clamber aboard the Good Ship Independent, who knows, the picture may start to change very quickly indeed.

So stay tuned next Wednesday, if you have the stomach for it, because that’s Mrs May’s next Date with Danger. Another vote in the Commons, more threats of rebellion from within her own ranks, and another potential defeat.

Meanwhile, I have some questions for the Group of however-many-it-is-by-the-time-you-read-this. What kind of organisation do you have on the ground? Are you ready to fight an election? If you want to entice pro-Remain voters away from Corbynised Labour, are you ready to take on the Momentum war machine? How much cash do you have? Who and where has it come from?

Those who welcome the emergence of The Independent Group will gaze longingly across the Channel to Emmanuel Macron, who invented a totally new party in his own image, swept into the Presidency and seized control of the National Assembly as an unashamedly pro-EU centrist. I mean no disrespect to TIG-gers, but I don’t immediately see a British Macron among them.

Miserabilists like me will instead point to once exciting new political starbursts like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and even that same M Macron in France, whose popularity lasted about as long as a bottle of vin rouge in the Lustig household, and ponder on the fragility of politicians’ promises.

On the other hand, good feminist that I am, I definitely welcome a new political grouping in which the majority of founder members are women.

Those of us with long memories, of course, will recall the heady days of the SDP, another pro-Europe, largely ex-Labour breakaway group, when in alliance with the Liberals, they won twenty-five per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election, just two per cent behind Labour. And when, thanks to our crazy voting system, they won just twenty-three seats, compared to Labour’s 209.

Mind you, the SDP’s legacy does live on. Three of its former members now sit in Theresa May’s Cabinet: two of them are the business secretary Greg Clark and the Scottish secretary David Mundell. (Mr Mundell, by the way, is said to be a leading candidate in the who-will-jump-next stakes, which brings to mind one of my favourite Winston Churchill quotes, after he rejoined the Conservative party in 1924, having left to join the Liberals twenty years earlier. ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’)

The third ex-SDP member in the May cabinet is the transport secretary Chris Grayling, officially awarded (by me) the title of Most Incompetent Minister Ever in All Of Human History, and described witheringly by Anna Soubry this week as a man whose career has ‘advanced on pitiful failure after failure.’

Probably best not to remind her how he started out.


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