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The Independent Group tries to learn from Charles Kennedy in its first reshuffle

TIG’s major aim has to be to keep up the media attention through a variety of means. 

By Stephen Bush

The Independent Group has conducted its first reshuffle, appointing its 11 MPs to a variety of roles.

Like any minor party, TIG will be dependent on free media to grow and to succeed, and its political strategy reflects that reality. One reason why its members are yet to elect a leader – Gavin Shuker has already been appointed to the role of convenor, essentially the job of chief whip, while Chuka Umunna is the group’s overall spokesperson – is that they will want to ration out their supply of free media hits. That’s one of the lessons they have taken from the successes and failures of the SDP.

They will receive another burst of media attention when they formally establish themselves as a political party, and another when they elect a leader. Throughout it all, they will seek to present themselves as doing politics in “a different way”, whether through this period of operating as a quasi-political party, and very probably through electing their leader in a novel manner, perhaps through a postal primary or some other system.

Another challenge TIG will face is its ability to get press attention not through being shiny and new, but through being effective at the art of opposition. Several senior New Labour figures have told me they think that Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy, not David Cameron, was the most effective opposition leader they faced. That was not because of his opposition to the Iraq war but because of the team of arch-scrutinisers and campaigners he appointed to his frontbench: “hard bastards who were always finding campaigns and ways to criticise us” in the words of one Labour peer.

This first set of appointments is much more reflective of TIG MPs’ skillsets and experiences than they are, necessarily, an indicator of where the breakaway is headed over policy.

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Heidi Allen, once described by one complaining Treasury official as “the most expensive backbencher in history” due to her repeated campaigns for more money, becomes welfare lead. Luciana Berger, building on her work on the Labour frontbench and her backbench campaigns, will lead on health and culture. Ann Coffey, whose parliamentary career, like that of many Labour MPs, has drawn heavily on her pre-politics career in social work, will major on education and children’s services.

Mike Gapes, a former chair of the foreign affairs select committee, will lead on foreign affairs and defence, while Chris Leslie, whose political career was shaped by Gordon Brown and who was the first to spot the explosive potential of tax credit cuts to damage George Osborne’s 2015 budget, will shadow the Treasury.  Anna Soubry, a former criminal barrister, will shadow justice and Brexit. 

It leaves the potential for damaging incoherence alive and well within the group. 

Of course, one of the major ways that TIG will get media attention is if it can continue to attract recruits from the other parties, which makes Sarah Wollaston’s role in charge of “new colleagues” particularly important. Wollaston is widely respected among the cross-party alliance of pro-choice MPs and has been a key organiser in seeing off a number of legislative measures to reduce reproductive rights, so she is well connected and offers plausible deniability for anyone thinking of making the jump – even before her position as a select committee chair and chair of the liaison committee is taken into account.  

Part of whether TIG attracts more MPs is if the other parties are able to keep their MPs happy and on side, but an equally crucial aspect is whether TIG can emulate what Kennedy’s frontbench did and make a splash with a small team.