The term historic is becoming commonplace in relation to UK politics in recent times but the formation of a new Independent Group of 11 MPs, eight from Labour and three former Conservatives, does represent a very significant moment. Nothing quite like it has been seen since the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. The spectacle of formally loyal MPs from the two main parties holding press conferences deploring the state of their respective political tribes has been dramatic and has rightly captured the news agenda.
This development poses many new questions that organisations seeking to engage with and influence the political sphere in the UK must quickly consider. Just how significant and long lasting is this split? How will it impact, if at all, the current political impasse over Brexit? Should you prioritise engagement with the new grouping? Does this make an earlier election more likely? How damaging is this for both Labour and the Conservatives moving forward?
Many of these questions will take time to address, but there are some factors that are immediately apparent. In some ways, this splintering is simply a formalisation of trends that have been obvious for some time: that on many big issues (particularly Brexit) there are a significant number of MPs that were no longer voting along party lines; that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has made it essentially uninhabitable for many moderate Labour MPs; and that Theresa May’s approach to Brexit has fundamentally alienated the most ardent remainers in her party.
How much influence this grouping will be able to exert on the Brexit process will depend on how organised and disciplined they are and the extent to which they are able to coordinate with the Liberal Democrats and SNP. This does not fundamentally change the parliamentary arithmetic on Brexit, but it does change the political dynamics at play. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will both need to factor in the possibility of further defections when plotting their Brexit course.
The longer-term prospects for this new Independent Group are hard to predict. UK political history does not include very encouraging precedents and the first past the post electoral system will always present significant hurdles to any new political party. They are not yet technically constituted as a political party and have no electoral or administrative infrastructure. To have any chance of having an electoral impact at a general election they will need to address this, as well as build an entirely new policy platform from the ground up. They will need to define what they stand for and what they want to achieve, not just what they didn’t like about their former parties.
In seeking to start this process there are likely to be opportunities for business and investors to engage and shape their thinking. The grouping includes a former Cabinet level Business Minister, a former Shadow Business Secretary, and the Chair of the Health Select Committee and is characterised by MPs who understand the importance of supporting business and the UK economy. They will have the ability to command media attention and should definitely be a major feature in political engagement programmes from now on.
Finally, this leaves both Labour and the Conservatives wounded. There will be intense scrutiny in the coming days and weeks on other potential defectors with the reaction from both main party leaderships set to play a crucial role in what happens next. Failure to address the fundamental concerns aired about the direction of travel could see more defections. But many MPs will be making longer term calculations. The electoral prospects of a brand new political force in UK politics are very uncertain.