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Time will tell whether new MP group will actually make a difference

PUBLISHED: 19:55 21 February 2019

Chuka Umunna and Angela Smith leave One Great George Street in London, following a press conference for the Independent Group where three Conservative MPs, Sarah Woollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry, announced their resignation from the party on Wednesday. Umunna holds the key to the success of the breakaway MPs, says Iain Dale

Chuka Umunna and Angela Smith leave One Great George Street in London, following a press conference for the Independent Group where three Conservative MPs, Sarah Woollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry, announced their resignation from the party on Wednesday. Umunna holds the key to the success of the breakaway MPs, says Iain Dale

It's been a huge week in politics with MPs leaving both the Conservatives and Labour. Iain Dale says the new independent MPs need to quickly build a realistic policy platform

I was just 18 years old when the Gang of Four left the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981. It seems all politics is cyclical nowadays, or is that I am now very old? On Monday it was Groundhog Day when the Gang of Seven left the Labour Party to form The Independent Group, which is possibly one of the least catchy titles for a new putative political party ever thought of. On Tuesday another Labour MP joined their merry band, and on Wednesday three Tory MPs deserted their political tribe.

In East Anglia we only have two Labour MPs – Sandy Martin in Ipswich and Clive Lewis in Norwich South. Both of these gentlemen will have had a shiver run down their spines when they learned of the new party, given what happened in the 1980s. Let me explain.

I cut my political teeth on the streets of Norwich in the 1983 general election campaign. Labour MPs David Ennals and John Garrett were defending smallish majorities against a Tory challenge from candidates Patrick Thompson and John Powley. Both Labour MPs were swept away in the Thatcher landslide. In both seats the Liberal/SDP Alliance vote more than doubled, attracting moderate Labour supporters to give them their votes instead. In Ipswich in 1983, Labour’s Ken Weetch held on by the skin of his teeth – but in 1987 succumbed to the Conservative Michael Irvine.

To be fair, Clive Lewis now has a stonking majority of 15,596 and would take some shifting, but Sandy Martin in Ipswich has a wafer-thin majority of only 836 votes. He’s not alone. There are plenty of Labour MPs up and down the country who are experiencing squeaky-bum time this week.

Here comes the ‘but’. While the media has concentrated on Chuka Umunna’s merry little band this week, it seems to have gone relatively unnoticed that there is a new party on the right. Just as The Independent Group could haemorrhage votes from Labour, the Brexit Party could take votes from the Tories – and probably a few from Labour too. Set up in a Norfolk barn, and backed by Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party has already attracted the support of 100,000 people. If we don’t leave the EU and have to take part in May’s European Parliament elections, I suspect the Brexit Party will wipe the floor with the other participants.

The launch of The Independent Group this week may well have no impact on British politics at all. They may just fade away, never to be heard of again. Their launch didn’t quite go to plan, with one of their number being accused of making a racist remark and being forced to apologise in a cringe-making video. They seemed unable to articulate any vision beyond being against Brexit. In fact, so in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’ are they that they are denying their own constituents one by refusing to resign their seats and fight by-elections. It’s also somewhat ironic that on the issue of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, all 11 of them have realised that if you find it impossible to reform an organisation from within, you have to leave it. They seem blind to the fact that this is exactly why many Brexiteers decided we had to leave the EU!

Part of me respects people who make the decision to leave their political tribe. No-one does that lightly. They’ve taken a huge risk both politically and personally. But part of me also respects those who have decided to stay and fight, fight and fight again to save the parties they love.

The success of this new grouping, assuming it develops into a fully-fledged political party, will in large part depend on Chuka Umunna. He is the only one of the 11 MPs with any kind of real national profile. If he can control his narcissistic urges and his ego, and build a realistic policy platform, then great things could come of it. If not, The Independent Group is destined to become a pub quiz question in history.

Email Iain Dale at iain@iaindale.com or follow him on Twitter
@iaindale

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