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A Handful Of U.K. Lawmakers Are Trying To Create A New Political Party

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Brexit has already had far-reaching consequences for Britain. And here's another one. It looks like the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union might be leading to the creation of a new political party. A handful of lawmakers from each of the two major parties have peeled off to create what they are calling "the Independent Group." To talk about what this means, James Blitz joins us now. He's Whitehall editor with the Financial Times.

Welcome.

JAMES BLITZ: Hello.

SHAPIRO: This started with the defection of Labour Party members from the left. Eight have peeled off as of now. Then today, three Tory members of parliament from the right joined them. Do you think this is the start of something bigger?

BLITZ: Well, it's very hard to say. I mean, the starting point is that breakaway movements like this, even if they're very small - and this one is small - are very unusual in the British political system. We have a party-based system. It's very tribal. People are very loyal to their party leader, to their party brand and, in particular, to the people that work for them in local associations. So the parties don't fragment in this way.

SHAPIRO: And so after two tense years of negotiations over Brexit, what is it that has happened now to cause this unusual breakaway?

BLITZ: There are quite a number of things. Brexit isn't the only factor. I mean, Brexit clearly is important because the prime minister is 2 1/2 years into her negotiation. And there's a feeling that she's getting nowhere. Most of these MPs, both on the Labour and the Conservative side, really want to have a second referendum to try and revisit the decision that was made in 2016. They've always wanted that. And as we reach a kind of denouement, they, basically, decided to press the button and leave their parties altogether. So that's one factor.

But there's also another, which is that the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn looks institutionally anti-Semitic. And there are other factors as well. He's very much an old-style socialist. And so the Labour MPs in that party don't want to stay.

SHAPIRO: Does this new group have a united set of demands or principles that you mentioned, the desire for a new Brexit referendum? Do they have a platform?

BLITZ: Yeah, they have. I mean, they're very much in the center ground of politics, if you'd like. They stand for moderate, pragmatic politics and one which isn't driven by ideology. It's unclear exactly whether they do come together on a lot of issues. At the end of the day, the ones from Labour are rather more social democratic. The ones from the Conservative Party are, perhaps, a little more wedded to the free market.

I mean, they don't really form what you would think of as a united, coherent party yet. But these are early days. What they really need now is some really big hitters in politics, people at ministerial or even cabinet level and shadow cabinet level on both sides to come into their ranks. If they start doing that, then they're really going to get momentum.

SHAPIRO: How likely do you think that is?

BLITZ: It's really hard to say. There is certainly a very serious disaffection within the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn. There is no doubt about that. He is, if you like, an unmovable object. He's really an almost extremist figure who doesn't represent anything like the mainstream view of MPs. So the chances of more Labour MPs coming over is high.

On the Conservative side, yes, there are quite a number of MPs. I count them at about 10 to 15 who probably want a second referendum. But that's a much smaller number. The Conservatives are, generally, more wedded to the principle of Brexit, so fewer will come from there.

SHAPIRO: I don't think anybody would have said that there was a high likelihood of a second referendum. Does the formation of this group make it more likely?

BLITZ: No, not at this stage. If we're going to have a second referendum in Britain, Mr. Corbyn has to decide that he's going to back it and that he is going to whip his about 265 MPs behind it. That's what's needed. I don't think there's any other way we're going to get it. Now, that might happen if we descend into, really, absolute chaos. It's not impossible. Chaos is, ultimately, the engine that moves us towards a second referendum. But it really is the very last card that is played in the entire Brexit process. So I wouldn't completely write it off yet. But it's less likely than more likely.

SHAPIRO: James Blitz of the Financial Times, thanks so much for joining us once again.

BLITZ: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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