How do you know that you’re living through a historic moment? It’s so much easier to sign post turning points with hindsight, once everything has gone down, the dust has settled and the consequences of decisions taken in the midst of chaos are clear.
That said, today there’s no doubt that we’re witnessing something major unfold. Three Conservative MPs – Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – have quit their party to sit as independents alongside the newly formed Independent Group. They’re joined by an additional Labour MP – Joan Ryan – who has said she is choosing to break off from her party to join the Independent Group last night because it has become ‘infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism’.
All of the MPs leaving their mainstream parties to join this newly formed group which, crucially, isn’t actually officially a political party (yet) are effectively saying ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ to their respective leaders.
Announcing her decision, Ryan also said that Jeremy Corbyn and what she called the ‘Stalinist clique which surrounds him’ was not providing the opposition she wished to see as Britain progresses towards Brexit.
In a letter to the Prime Minister Soubry, Wollaston and Allen collectively said: ‘We haven’t changed, the Conservative party has and it no longer reflects the values and beliefs we share with millions throughout the UK. The final straw has been the government’s disastrous handling of Brexit.’
This takes the total number of MPs who have broken away to 11. This means if they were to form a party it would be bigger than the DUP who Theresa May has allied with to prop up her government. The Independent Group is also now the same size of as the Lib Dems in Parliament, any more new members and they'll become the fourth largest group. The ramifications of this are huge on several fronts - May is now even more reliant on the DUP to get anything through Parliament.
However, because Britain has a first past the post political system (which means we vote a party and their leader into power as opposed for voting specifically on who we want to be Prime Minister) it’s unlikely that neither the Independent Group nor the newly independent Conservative MPs can really disrupt the status quo unless they also call for electoral reform.
However, you slice it, though, what we’re seeing this week is the coming apart of Britain’s two-party political system in the pressure cooker of extremes that is Brexit.
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The Conservative MPs cite their party’s lurch to the right on Brexit as their principal reason for leaving while Labour MPs, like Joan Ryan, have directly blamed what they see as Corbyn’s hard left politics for their decision.
There’s no doubt that the vote for Brexit has divided the country. What we’re now seeing is its chickens coming home to roost in Westminster. The referendum on being part of the European Union posed only two questions: should we stay or should we go.
The government feels it can only have one stance on the outcome of that vote, that we should leave because that’s how most people voted. Meanwhile the opposition, despite Corbyn’s deliberate ambiguity at times, back leaving because they too fear undermining those who voted to leave.
That, by its nature, leaves the millions of people who voted remain, along with the MPs who backed it, feeling unrepresented and politically homeless regardless of whether they consider themselves to be left or right wing. As a report released by the Hope Not Hate campaign group just last month. After polling almost 33,000 people they found that more than two thirds of the British public feel they are not represented by a mainstream political party.
However, whether there are enough of those people out there, who would vote for a new political proposition and seriously challenge those who support the government’s position on Brexit is up for debate.
It’s too soon to tell how this will affect Parliament. If there were to be an election tomorrow or, even, next week the Independent Group wouldn’t really have any impact but, if they can gather more steam and convince more MPs to join them then they could, in theory, affect how things go in the House of Commons.
When 4 Labour MPs split from their party during Michael Foot’s leadership in the 1980s to form the SDP they managed to reach a total number of 35. However, they only ever managed to convince one Conservative to join them. In that respect, the Independent Group if it were to become a party is already more of a political coalition.
We’re currently watching our two main political parties splinter because they can’t agree about Brexit and what happens next depends on so many things: when or if an election is called, what happens next in Brexit negotiations and whether more MPs defect.
What we can be fairly certain of, however, is that this is definitely what history looks like.