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22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 5:01pm

Why Change UK’s split was inevitable

By Patrick Maguire

The splitters have split: six Change UK MPs have quit the breakaway party to sit as independents, with five fighting on.

Leading the defectors are Heidi Allen, Change’s former leader, and Chuka Umunna, the party’s former spokesperson. They are joined by Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Sarah Wollaston and Luciana Berger. 

Staying put: Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey and Joan Ryan, who will fight on as continuity Change UK, now led by Anna Soubry, who says she was “deeply disappointed” in the splitters. “I’m deeply disappointed that at such a crucial time in British politics our former colleagues have made this decision. Now is not the time to walk away, but instead to roll up our sleeves and stand up for the sensible mainstream centre ground,” Soubry said.

In truth, however, a schism of this kind was always likely, if not inevitable – even if you don’t take Change’s abysmal showing in last week’s European Parliament elections as a given. That the party could maintain its coherence as a fighting force has always been doubtful. Since its inception it has been bedevilled by splits on two fundamental issues: economic policy and electoral strategy. The latter question has taken on a new urgency in the light of the recovery of the Liberal Democrats, and it has been clear for weeks that Umunna and Allen’s pro-cooperation position could not be reconciled with that of Soubry and Leslie. 

Though Soubry insists that Brexit is a symptom, rather than a cause of what Change’s corporate lexicon calls “Britain’s broken politics”, a shared belief that the new party was the most effective way of opposing it was the only thing that bound a fairly heterogeneous group of MPs together. Given that has been comprehensively disproven, the case for sticking with it – especially for those MPs, namely Umunna and Allen, who could plausibly win their seats as Lib Dems – is non-existent. That much is clear from the joint statement issued by the splitters, which emphasises their common cause in making the “uneqivocal case for Remain” and nothing else.

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What happens next? It’s worth noting that the six who have quit Change won’t necessarily end up in the same place. That splinter is itself split between those who favour joining the Liberal Democrats, chiefly Umunna, Allen and Wollaston, and those whose ideological leanings and objections to Jeremy Corbyn mean their preference is for a much looser grouping of independents, such as Gavin Shuker.

As for the hold-outs, history suggests they are unlikely to prosper, despite asserting that they will fight on, hold a conference in the autumn and run in elections. David Owen’s rump SDP lasted less than two years before it folded, having finished behind the Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election of May 1990. But it’s the events of the past month that reveal the uncomfortable truth for those who want to keep Change on the road as a going electoral concern: neither donors nor voters have any incentive to take it seriously.