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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:15pm

Divided, defeated and broke: what next for Change UK?

By Stephen Bush

On Tuesday morning, the 11 founding members of Change UK met for the final time. If the six MPs who ended up breaking away from the party to return to sitting as an independent collective were expecting some kind of plea to stay on board, none was forthcoming. Instead, in a conversation that one MP described as “fraught”, the departing six (Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna, and Sarah Wollaston) were essentially asked to justify to the remaining five (Anna Soubry, the group’s new leader, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Joan Ryan and Ann Coffey) why they were going their own way.

It was a disagreement that had been a long time in the making. When Brexit was delayed past 29 March and the decision was taken to fight a general election, three of the 11 had warned against fighting the European elections. Berger and Smith feared that becoming a party so soon in their development would mean blunting their appeal to Labour MPs flirting with joining, while Shuker warned that fighting a national election so soon in their development was an awfully big test. But the overall mood in the room was that, as one of their number put it to me at the time, “We’d look like a joke to the lobby if we sat out the European elections”.

The compromise measure was that the party would elect an interim leader, to signal that the party was still a work in progress and in order to remain a welcoming home for any disillusioned MPs in other parties.

But the result of registering with the electoral commission meant becoming a party with a full-fledged constitution, one that put overall control over the party’s strategic direction not in the hands of all 11 MPs, but of a small group on its management committee. That meant that, when the Liberal Democrats’ surge in the local elections happened, the decision about how to react to it was taken not by the whole group but by a minority.

What now for the breakaway six? Umunna is said to be of the view that the mission of Change UK and the Independent Group was to revitalise the centre, and that now the Liberal Democrats are on the up again, they should seek some kind of alliance with them. Smith, Shuker and Berger are of the view that the new group may have a separate role to play as a place for MPs in the big parties who are disillusioned with the big two parties, but are not ready to jump into a party they have fought in by-elections and elections for years.  

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They believe that, with the likely election of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and the ongoing EHRC investigation into the Labour party, there may be more defections coming; but they will not be drawn to an organisation as dysfunctional as Change and may be unwilling to make the direct leap to the Liberal Democrats. They hope, too, that they can reboot as group with a better understanding of how to thrive as a minor party than Change UK had. They are betting heavily that an early election won’t lead to their extinction, but so too are the remaining five members of Change UK.

What of the Change remnant? Although they are upbeat, lack of funds may very quickly force the party to dissolve. Although the party has some money left, the vast majority of it was raised when they were still the Independent Group and it slowed down considerably once they became Change UK and their troubles began. Several insiders believe that in reality, what cash it has left is enough to settle its liabilities, nothing more. Most of the MPs with direct relationships with donors have all left the party. Those two things are directly linked: donors to the party have, understandably, been vocal in their displeasure, making it harder for those MPs to “retreat into favourable coverage”, as one puts it, with Berger, while on maternity leave, fielding large numbers of complaints about the tactical missteps of the new party. (I’m told that the Wavertree MP has been one of the most frank and vocal behind the scenes about how badly Change UK bungled its rollout and chance to change.)

The assets that Change UK has, such as they are, are not as promising as they might look. The party has a formidable mailing list of supporters, but, according to one person who is familiar with it, “Yes, we have thousands and thousands of email contacts, but if you look at the last 15,000 replies to our emails it is all ‘I’m voting Lib Dem’, ‘I want a Remain alliance’, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s not going to keep funding Change”.

Change UK’s remaining members still seem to be in denial about the scale of the challenge involved: their intention to push ahead with an annual conference this autumn looks foolhardy given the scale of the challenge. One senior Liberal Democrat, with considerable experience of what it takes to run a conference as a minor party, recently told me that “if I could scrap conference, I would: you have to have things for journalists every day, any empty room or indiscreet MP or activist is a nightmare waiting to happen, and we’ve got thousands of experienced volunteers to help us make it work”.

Finances may yet mean the conference doesn’t go ahead: if it does, it may simply be the final indignity for the Change remnant.