With Brexit day only weeks away, and still no deal in place, now might not seem the best time for British politicians to flip the table over.
But this week, 11 Members of Parliament have done exactly that. On Monday, seven members of the opposition Labour Party announced that they were fed up of their leader Jeremy Corbyn, citing reasons ranging from rampant anti-Semitism to his lack of leadership on Brexit. They will now sit as independent MPs, but as a group (not a new party).
They were joined on Wednesday by another Labour colleague and, more problematically for the government, three members from the governing Conservative Party.
The Conservative defectors complicate matters when it comes to Brexit as the three are all vocal supporters of the EU. They have been particularly critical of Theresa May’s tactics of pandering to the harder-line Brexiteers in her own party and elsewhere. That means it’s now hard to see this new group as anything other than a pro-EU bloc in the UK Parliament, dissatisfied with the pro-Brexit positions of both government and opposition.
Why does that matter?
Brexit has made the politics of the UK incredibly hard to read. Both frontbenches are committed to delivering Brexit. The government agreed a way to achieve this with the other 27 EU member states. Yet the UK Parliament hates the deal, infamously handing May the heaviest defeat in the history of the House of Commons.
And it hates the deal for reasons all across the political spectrum (that’s right, the Brexiteers hate the deal just as much as the Remainers).
Since 2016, Brexit has redrawn the ideological lines of politics in the UK. Professor Sara Hobolt at the London School of Economics explained that there “are more people now who are willing to identify as either Brexiteers or Remainers than as supporters of any party. This new divide is more tribal than old party politics, with both groups tending to be inherently distrustful of one another.”
The problem is, that new divide doesn’t fall down traditional party lines – hence the defections from both of the UK’s main parties. And if how you voted on Brexit ultimately dictates how you vote, what does that mean in the context of the rest of a political platform?
In the 2017 general election, there was a direct correlation between how a seat voted in the Brexit referendum and how the Conservatives (seen as more pro-Brexit) and Labour (seen as more pro-EU) performed respectively.
Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester and author of the upcoming book Brexitland, believes that this is because Brexit was never really about Brexit. “It’s what we academics call the second ideological dimension. Traditional politics relies on the demonstrable: Do you support free-market economics or regulation? The second dimension has more to do with instinct: Do you want border control or to welcome refugees? In this sense, Brexit wasn’t really a question of how do you feel about the EU, rather, do you want to live in a progressive, global UK, or do you want to retreat and live in a more traditional country?”
Here, we come back to the new group of independent MPs. They all support a modern, progressive, global Britain that is very much a part of modern Europe. Currently, both main parties say that they will deliver Brexit – albeit different versions of it. A new group in Parliament, free to vote and speak as they like, can now make the case for a softer Brexit, or even a second vote, and do so in ways that could damage both the government and the opposition.
But will they? That’s a crucial question. If the movement swells, it could create the momentum for a second referendum and push one party or another (probably the Labour Party) to formally back such a vote. It could terrify Conservative Brexiteers into backing May on her deal. It could completely break the parliamentary arithmetic and cause the UK to stumble into a no deal. It could force a general election in which all 11 lose their seats. It’s very hard to tell.
But the main takeaway from this week is that these 11 MPs were so frustrated by their own parties – for more reasons that just Brexit – that they needed to do something. And that it was now or never. They were left with no good options because, right now, politics in the UK is spiraling out of control.