A new kind of politics? The Independent Group has no politics

EVENTS this week at Westminster are being hailed as a game changer. Maybe the last few years of enforced Brexit diet has made me cynical but sorry, I can’t see it. Worse, I’m concerned it is just yet another distraction while the petty officers of the Titanic manoeuvre themselves a bit closer towards the lifeboats rather than try to steer the ship off the iceberg.

Things I warned of two full years ago are now coming to pass, yet for every piece of economic bad news there is a squadron of useful idiots deployed to take to the airwaves to blame global events, the weather, the dog eating their homework ... anything. Anything but to accept the simple reality that Brexit has already made the UK, and for the moment Scotland with it, a less attractive place to invest.

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First published in The National, 22 February 2019

Given that seeking foreign investment has been a key plank of the Westminster economic consensus for the last four decades, this really matters. Japanese firms in particular were wooed by Margaret Thatcher to locate in the UK in order to access the EU single market and, consequently, Brexit for them is a broken promise. As the Japanese ambassador said, the best part of two years ago “a door to nowhere is just a door” and serious people are making serious decisions.

The Foreign Secretary likening the EU to the Soviet Union, for example, or his predecessor saying “f**k business” aren’t just diplomatic gaffes, there are real consequences when the global community concludes that the UK is run by a shower of spivs and chancers. And real people in the real world lose their jobs.

So who we elect matters, and what they say matters too. I have been saying for years that the UK’s EU referendum has touched things a lot deeper than just attitudes to the EU. It has shone a bright light on the fact that Westminster is comprehensively broken and there are not many folk in the crumbling palace by the Thames with ideas to fix it.

That is a roundabout way of saying I’m not overly impressed by The Independent Group, who left the Labour and Conservative parties to sit as independents. Firstly, I’ll declare an in-built prejudice that if someone is elected on a party ticket (and let us face it, everyone is) they should not have the luxury to then declare themselves something else.

As an elected member you have a privileged position because of the decades of hard work put in by your predecessors, your colleagues nationwide, your activists, donors and volunteers. They weren’t (just) doing it for the baby-blue eyes of their candidates, there’s a cause and an ideology that motivates and it is that cause and ideology that these MPs have now decided they cannot represent. I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that they should resign and trigger by-elections to see if their constituents approve of their choice.

At the same time, their departures seem genuine and I do not doubt they are alone in feeling unhappy at the state of their parties. But that is all the more reason to go back to their constituents and openly debate that in a by-election.

Secondly, if you’re going to declare yourself a new force in politics it helps to have some ideas. I’ve read as much information as they have made available and they seem to be entirely predicating themselves on what they’re not rather than anything they actually are. Yes, they all seem to think Jeremy Corbyn is beastly and Mrs May has a problem with immigration (I’ve written extensively in this column about both long since) but I don’t see any positive vision. They do all seem to have suffered some pretty nasty abuse and there is a lot more that could have been done about that, but I don’t see how that alone justifies sitting as an independent rather than just quitting.

They seem frustrated in particular at the way Mrs May and Mr Corbyn have handled Brexit. Welcome to the party (small P) kids, but, not to be rude, where have you been?

But, here it might start to be more interesting. If they are going to be an avowedly pro-EU voice in the Commons alongside the SNP, LibDems, Plaid and Greens then they might be on to something. Again, some clarity on that would have been useful but they did not seem keen to be pinned down to specifics. If they are all about Brexit, where was the commitment to a second referendum. If they are about a new kind of politics, where is the politics?

It is a simple fact that with a few honourable exceptions, the Labour Party has been posted missing on Brexit and the Tories have sung along with the band in public despite their private misgivings. Look at how many of them voted in December 2016 to trigger Article 50 without a plan. That was the original sin.

You did this kids, own it and admit your own mistake before you blame anyone else. Where Mr Corbyn has not only failed to prevent the Tories doing what they want, he has offered no constructive proposals that anyone else could unite around. He now, as I have written already in this column, gives every impression of trying to find ways to let Brexit happen while ensuring as little of the mess of it is attached to him. I’m afraid so far I view The Independent Group in the same light.

If they do cohere with others and try to bring some sense to things, so much the better. But it strikes me as too little too late, and like everything that has been emanating from Westminster lately, it is not about the EU at all but using Brexit as a pretext for other stuff, all seen through a world view that begins and ends in a palace by the Thames.

The clock is ticking – we are fewer than 1000 hours away from Brexit, Article 50 continues and with every day that passes the opportunity to turn it around gets smaller and smaller.