The 11 MPs of Change UK meet today to discuss their new party’s future, or lack thereof.
There are three tendencies within the party: the first thinks they should throw in the towel and join the Liberal Democrats. That tendency, which includes the party’s interim leader Heidi Allen and its spokesperson Chuka Umunna is partly motivated by ideological sympathy with the Liberal Democrats and partly by the strength of the United Kingdom’s traditional third party in their own backyards.
The second doesn’t want anything to do with the Liberal Democrats. The feeling is largely mutual, since this tendency includes the likes of Joan Ryan, who chaired the No to AV campaign, voted for every authoritarian measure the last Labour government came up with, and defence hawk like Mike Gapes, who support Trident and still think the Iraq war was a good idea, as well as Chris Leslie and Anna Soubry. It’s a measure of the antipathy between the Liberal Democrats and the new kid on the block that the biggest laughs Ed Davey got at the first Liberal Democrat hustings were when he told activists that he was dubious about Change UK from the get-go “because I’ve met them”, adding for good measure that they were “nice people – but not liberals”.
The divide is essentially between, in the words of one, whether “to lovebomb the Liberal Democrats back to the negotiating table, or simply to bomb them”. But you can’t use force when you’ve just been walloped in a European elections and are flirting with zero per cent in every poll. The central problem is that most of the hold-outs are both ideologically unsympathetic to the Liberal Democrats and would likely lose their seats even in Liberal Democrat colours.
The third group wants to declare the Change UK phase of their existence a failure and revert to being a loose collection of independents. “The problem with saying you’ll do politics differently,” one of that tendency explained to me recently, “is half the people who agree with you actually agree with you, but the other half just wants to do politics the same way but stay in charge”. Their argument is that the looming EHRC investigation into Labour, the likely election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative party means that there is a need for a group in Parliament that tribal Conservative and Labour politicians who are disaffected with politics can join other than the Liberal Democrats, who they have spent long decades fighting at a council and parliamentary level.
But bluntly, the decision is likely to be made for them. As I wrote right at the start of what turned out to be a very short journey for Change UK, the 11 breakaway MPs had to learn and learn fast how to survive and thrive as a minor party that has to scrap for every inch of coverage, rather than simply banking the coverage that comes from being one end of a major party’s civil war. It’s no coincidence that the two politicians who most benefited from that dynamic, Soubry and Leslie, believe that they can somehow make a go of it outside through force of will.
Their major difficulty is whether Change opts to accept reality or resist it, it will soon encounter the other difficult part about life as a minor party: running out of money.