Orcadian 26/02/19

If the works of Winnie the Pooh are to be believed, and I accept there is conflicting evidence, Tiggers are highly excitable creatures with a tendency to leave a trail of destruction in their wake.

Time will tell if this description applies to the former Labour and Tory MPs who jumped ship last week to form The Independent Group (TIG).  For the time being, however, these particular Tiggers have undoubtedly set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Listening to each describe the despair that led to them concluding they had no choice but to leave their respective parties, it was clear how difficult a decision this had been. But these defections speak volumes about the direction the Tory and Labour parties have taken in recent times. Both appear to be in thrall to increasingly powerful and intolerant factions of right and left. 

For the Tories, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group has become a party within a party, working with the DUP to force the Prime Minister to march to their hardline Brexit tune. Similarly, Momentum now controls the Labour party apparatus from top to bottom, dragging it ever further leftwards.  At the same time, complaints of bullying and intimidation have been on the increase in both parties, with so-called ‘moderates’ threatened with demotion and even deselection.

Eventually, however, the failure of leadership over Brexit by both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn proved the final straw. For the former Labour members of TIG, this exasperation was compounded by Mr Corbyn’s stubborn refusal to act decisively in tackling anti-semitism within his party. In part, this helps explain why rumours of further defections focus principally on the Labour side.

In Scotland, to date no parliamentarians have made a move, though various Labour MSPs openly parade their disdain for Mr Corbyn and his Scottish leader, Richard Leonard. This group includes Mr Leonard’s predecessor, Kezia Dugdale. By contrast, the Tory benches at Holyrood remain resolutely loyal to Mrs May, whatever the private misgivings.

Predictably, the formation of TIG has prompted comparisons with the creation of the SDP in the early 1980s. It is far too soon to know whether those comparisons are valid, and if indeed we are witnessing a broader political realignment, but it certainly fueled eager discussion at Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Hamilton at the weekend. Despite lively debates on issues ranging from prison reform to closing the attainment gap in education, much of the chat in the hall, on the fringes and in the bars was TIG-related.

Willie Rennie captured the mood of conference well, I felt, when arguing that we should be extending the hand of friendship and looking to work collaboratively with TIG where possible.  There is obvious shared ground over Brexit and an urgency in making the case for the public to be given the final say over this sorry mess.

Beyond that, however, while there is certainly agreement that voters have been ill-served by the lurch to left and right taken by the two largest parties, there is no real clarity yet over what TIG’s wider policy platform might be, or indeed whether the party will survive in its current form. 

Whatever the future may hold for TIG, events last week appear to have triggered a response from the Tory and Labour parties.  Faced by open revolt within her Cabinet over the weekend, the Prime Minister has finally agreed to the possibility of parliament delaying Brexit and removing the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Meantime, the threat of haemorrhaging yet more MPs and party members appears to have finally persuaded Mr Corbyn to throw his support, however grudgingly and belatedly, behind a People’s Vote on Brexit.

While neither of these developments lifts the looming threat of a damaging Brexit, both are significant and suggest the tide may be turning at long last. 

Over recent days, we have seen Jeremy Corbyn bounced into supporting a People’s Vote and Theresa May bounced into accepting that Brexit may need to be delayed. Perhaps the evidence is not conflicting after all and “bouncing is what Tiggers do best”.

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