Phillip Lee and Nigel Farage.
Solon Solomon, The Independent
The moment Phillip Lee left the Tory benches, in the House of Commons during the Brexit vote and sat beside Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson, will be immortalised for two reasons.
First, the defection was caught on camera and second, it took place as Boris Johnson was talking. Then came the departure of Johnson’s own brother and cabinet member, Jo. He has had a bad week.
More importantly, Lee’s move ratified what polls have been showing for a long time: the Lib Dems are emerging as a considerable third pole in British politics. The party already has been strengthened by some of the independent and former Change UK MPs. Yet the Labour party background of most of the MPs who have opted to join the Lib Dem ranks points to the obvious: the Lib Dems are a good choice for people aligning with a more leftist agenda, not necessarily with MPs – and most importantly voters – who align with the centre-right. For the latter, the best alternative the British political system has to offer them is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
The recent deselection of 21 Tory MPs from the Conservative party offers a unique opportunity for a new centre-right party to be created. The number of Tories left without a political home is such that they can form a nucleus of experienced politicians who can constitute a responsible choice in the forthcoming elections. Currently independent MPs could join their ranks. Heidi Allen, the former Conservative MP who served as the interim Change UK leader and ultimately left the party due to its ideological approach to the Lib Dems agenda, could be one of them.
It is true that the British electoral system does not encourage the flourishing of many political parties. Yet the establishment of Ukip in the past and its pro-Brexit rhetoric that ultimately led to the referendum and the existence of the Brexit Party now demonstrates that there is room for parties – as long as they have a clear ideological agenda. Excluding the extremes, the political centre can easily accommodate two political parties pairing. Labour has the Lib Dems. The Tories, assuming that they remain centre-right, could see the establishment of a new party as their nemesis. If they opt to move more to the right under Boris Johnson, then the Brexit party is already there.
The deselected Conservative MPs must be politically swift. Forming a party takes time and the forthcoming elections are looming. Boris Johnson has stated he would like them to take place on October 15. But Labour wants to place them much later in autumn, to make sure that even in case Johnson wins and once again gains a majority in parliament, he will not be able to put a no-deal Brexit back on the table. With parliament needing the approval of two thirds of its members in order to dissolve, this Labour insistence buys time also for the formation of a new political constellation, and better allowing former Conservative MPs and to whoever wants to join them to prepare their party and campaign.
Contrary to Change UK, which came to host a number of MPs from different political backgrounds, the fact that any new party will have as its nucleus politicians who all used to belong to the Conservatives, will render to the party a clear political, centre-right identity.
Parties are meant to address the challenges of the future, not embody the stereotypes and the clichés of the past. In today’s British political landscape, Brexit and the impasse it has led to calls for a new, creative approach. The centre-left voter has largely found such a strategy with the Lib Dems. It is a pity for centre-right Tory voters to have Nigel Farage as their alternative choice.
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