LONDON – Two events in 24 hours could shape the Brexit policy of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party and change the course of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The decision of seven members of Parliament to quit the party on Monday and set up an independent caucus will in itself do little to alter the calculus in the House of Commons — they ignored the party line on Brexit anyway — but it could lead Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to review his strategy.
And if that happens, Prime Minister Theresa May could find herself fighting a strengthened campaign for a delay to the U.K.’s departure or a second referendum, which could embolden anti-Brexit rebels in her own party.
Labour has stopped short of backing a repeat plebiscite on leaving the EU, a policy that prompted some of those MPs to quit on Monday. So far Corbyn’s followers are doubling down on their support for the leader and his ambiguous Brexit policy of supporting the divorce while proposing closer ties to the EU.
Even so, Labour politicians who want a new referendum still hope Monday’s split might prompt Corbyn to switch policy and back a “people’s vote,” especially if supporters of the idea stay loyal.
The seven splitters were among 41 Labour MPs who disobeyed Corbyn last week and voted in Parliament for a call to delay Brexit. The 34 remaining rebels who didn’t quit the party on Monday may provide fruitful targets for recruitment as defectors.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson warned more could follow “unless we change.” And if the Independent Group, as Monday’s ex-Labour faction is known, grows further it could yet become the new movement in British politics that its founder members are hoping for.
“The potential for parties that are not part of our traditional framework of two-party politics to do well is now well established,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told BBC radio on Monday. “The question is whether this group can use the particular opportunity and the particular stance that they’re going for.”
May’s Conservatives have their own problems, and both pro- and anti-Brexit wings of the ruling party have been linked with rumors of similar break-away groupings.
Even though Chuka Umunna directly appealed to Conservative supporters of EU membership to join his new Independent Group, the fact it was launched exclusively by Labour politicians — and dominated by grievances against Corbyn — makes it less likely to attract Tories.
Some Tories suggested on Monday that Labour’s turmoil may help them pick up extra votes in the next election, a prediction echoed by Corbyn’s economy spokesman John McDonnell.
But analysis of the last Labour breakaway, by the SDP in the 1980s, suggests that it limited Conservative majorities by taking the votes of disgruntled Labour voters who might otherwise have backed the Tories, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
There’s another event that will weigh on Corbyn’s mind in the weeks ahead: the death of Paul Flynn, a veteran Welsh MP, which was announced on Sunday.
There will need to be a by-election in his pro-Brexit constituency in Wales and it is exactly the kind of district to which Labour’s ambiguous policy was designed to appeal. If Labour lose that by-election, Corbyn will come under intense pressure to change course.
“By-elections can play a massive role in altering people’s perceptions of political reality,” Bale said in a telephone interview. Labour don’t need to call the by-election immediately, Bale added, “but if they’re confident their strategy is the right one they should do it.”