By Sam Tilley
It can be argued that ever since the Liberal Democrats elected to go into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, Britain has been lacking a strong, centrist political force. The advent of Jeremy Corbyn and the pressure placed upon Theresa May by both the right of her own party and UKIP have further exacerbated this problem, driving Labour back into the leftist zone not occupied since the years of Tony Blair and the Conservatives away from the liberalisation that the coalition forced them to adopt. As of last weeks, talks have begun anew in order to change this.
Sir Vince Cable, the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, revealed on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show that up to twenty Labour MPs were willing to break from their party in order to form a new centrist opposition to a no-deal Brexit. They would, he continued, be bolstered by a smaller number of discontent Conservatives in order to form a cross-party consensus that would be able to have a strong force in Parliament, unconstrained by the uncompromising leaderships of both parties. In addition to this, it would allow current Lib Dem MPs to shed the arguably-still toxic brand that has hung around the neck of the party ever since their catastrophic electoral defeat in 2015.
There have been attempts to form a centrist party before. In 1981, in an eerily similar situation to today, a group of four moderate Labour MPs broke from the party describing the then-leadership as “Trotskyist” and as steering the party towards an unelectable left-wing platform. Despite a much-publicised launch, and an electoral pact with the Liberal Party, the newly-christened SDP failed to live up to the promise of its conception and later formally merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats shortly before the demise of Margaret Thatcher. As there are still a number of parliamentarians who remember the failure of the SDP to break the two-party deadlock that characterises British politics, there has been understandable trepidation when it comes to re-treading that same path.
Despite this, there are still a number of prominent Labour MPs who have been linked to a mass defection in either the days before or immediately following Brexit. These include leading People’s Vote campaigner Chuka Umunna, former Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie and, as recently as last week, 2016 leadership candidate Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd. Speaking on BBC Radio 5, when questioned about whether he would ever consider quitting Labour, he gave the somewhat non-committal answer “I think it’s something that I and a lot of other people are considering”. The major bone of discontent comes from the Labour leadership’s position on Brexit; a substantial number of Remain-backing MPs are increasingly finding themselves unable to wholeheartedly throw themselves behind a policy that they believe will leave their constituents worse off.
From the Conservative perspective, there are also a sizable number of complaints from the liberal side of the party that governmental policy is being dictated by the hardline Brexiteer group known as the ERG. Supporters of a second referendum, including former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, are becoming increasingly concerned over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, believing that the ERG is driving the government towards a no-deal policy. A number of these MPs have also previously indicated that if Boris Johnson, a prominent backer of the no-deal scenario, became leader, they would resign the party whip; effectively quitting the party.
How this prospective new party would function is believed to be something that is still up for debate. For his part, Cable believes that there would be no formal party establishment, instead all of the breakaway MPs would sit as a centrist group in the Commons which would be nominally led by Cable himself. Others have indicated that any new group would have to be led by a neutral leader and not be controlled by an existing party structure. Either way, it appears that the way forward for those disillusioned with their own parties is no less clear than where they stand now.