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“I’ve been through a divorce. I know what divorces are like”: Mike Gapes on the pain of leaving Labour

The Independent Group’s foreign affairs spokesperson on why the Iraq war wasn’t a mistake, Saudi Arabia, and milk.

Few of the Independent Group's 11 MPs can reasonably claim to be household names. Mike Gapes, the pugnacious member for Ilford South, is no exception. Unless, that is, you are a millennial with left-wing politics and an internet connection – in which case the only appropriate reply to the mention of Gapes's name is four letters long: “Milk.”

Even before his defection to the Independent Group, the former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's name lived in a bizarre online infamy thanks to a 2017 speech on Brexit. As debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill crept close to midnight, Gapes – an unreconstructed Remainer – gave his colleagues an enthusiastic crash course in the reality of the Irish economy. 

“And you have the milk,” he boomed in his inimitable Essex tones, waving his arms illustratively, “that is taken from the cows in the south and the cows in the north, put together in the same factory, mixed together with whiskey, and it comes out as Baileys.” Those 16 seconds have proved infinitely memeable and arguably made a punchline of one of the Independent Group's (TIG) most senior parliamentarians. 

Gapes takes pride in having fought a rearguard action against the left on social media, just as he did in analogue as leader of Labour's student wing in the 1970s and as a party headquarters apparatchik in the 1980s (he was a devotee of Neil Kinnock, who he has not yet spoken to since defecting). But he views this peculiar digital front in the party's factional war with a gently baffled magnanimity. “There are some young men who've got too much time on their hands,” he said, convulsing with laughter, when I met him in Portcullis House's atrium on Thursday. “They've got an unhealthy obsession. It's completely mad!” 

He confesses to having listened to Reel Politik, the anarchic left podcast that staged a dramatised reading of a 1990 pamphlet on the Cold War that Gapes wrote for the Fabian Society. “I do still have a copy on my shelf. I was quite proud of that little pamphlet at the time,” he giggles. “And they spent half an hour on a podcast reading it out in funny voices!”  Twitter could soon have something rather more serious to talk about. Despite his repeated insistence that TIG is not yet a party, it is starting to act like one. Policy briefs have been divvied up and a press release issued as we spoke revealed that Gapes would lead on foreign affairs and defence. 

He was dutifully respectful of the embargo on the news throughout our interview, and did not so much as allude to his new gig. But it was hardly unexpected. Foreign policy was what, along with anti-Semitism and Brexit, drove the 66-year-old to quit of the party he joined as a schoolboy and revise his 2015 view that he would only leave “in a box.” In his resignation letter, Gapes accused Jeremy Corbyn “and those around him” of taking the “wrong side on so many international issues from Russia, to Syria, to Venezuela.” No wonder the only topic of conversation between the two since Corbyn became leader has been football (Gapes is a devout West Ham fan).

But what will TIG's foreign policy look like, beyond being for Nato, a rules-based international order, and multilateralism? Gapes is keen to start formulating what he insists will be evidence-based, rather than “prejudice-based” policy. He rejects the argument that such an approach could itself be ideological. “I actually believe there are objective facts. They may be uncomfortable facts for either camp.”

The most pressing question, he believes, is “what is Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe in the context of Brexit? I am worried, I'm really worried, that this act of self-harm and reduction of our influence means the Foreign Office isn't equipped, resource-wise, to cope with these issues.

“There are a number of one-off issues and potential conflicts where we have a residual role, but I think the real problem is: what do we see as our place in the world? As a very important European country, and a medium-sized global economy, and a country which has got intelligence and security arrangements and defence arrangements with others?

How Britain might respond to the rise of China and India - as well as crises in South America - are the other geopolitical challenges Gapes wants to rise to. He suggests the Commonwealth might be used in a "more intelligent way...rather than the people on the Tory-ERG benches who seem to want to insult the Germans and tell the Africans what to do.” Then, of course, there is Nato, and whether it can survive the next US presidential election intact (he doubts that Trump will be beaten).

Those obsessive young men on social media sometimes criticise Gapes's decision to take a Saudi-funded trip to Riyadh last April. How does he square his doughty support for a rules-based international order with accepting the hospitality of the regime that killed Jamal Khashoggi? “There are complicated issues with Saudi Arabia,” he said, acknowledging both its “massive human rights problems” and the “radical reform agenda of the Crown Prince.” He likens his three visits - in 2000, 2014, and 2018 - to travelling from the 14th Century to the late 18th to the early 20th.

“There is a rapid change,” he said. “To see it through the prism of western European society and not recognise the change is not being real. You've got to look at that. If I'm criticised for going on a parliamentary delegation, I have to say that applies to everyone who goes to any country where there are human rights abuses. It applies to Jeremy Corbyn, who went to Syria and met Assad, went to Iran and met leading members of that theocratic regime, and it applies to anyone else.”

He offers an almost Corbynite defence of dialogue with unsavoury characters. “If you're going to talk to the Saudis about the issues that I raised, if you want to facilitate a political process in that horrible conflict in Yemen, you've got to engage with Saudi Arabia. That's the problem with the Labour leadership's position. The Saudis are prevented from attending Labour Party conference, but the Iranians aren't. Where's the consistency with that?”

“Just because you go somewhere and you declare it in your register of members' interests, apparently it makes you in the pay of the regime. That's what they're saying about me on social media, all these outriders. I'm simultaneously an agent, apparently, of Saudi Arabia and of Mossad.”

Like all four of TIG's MPs who were in parliament in 2003, Gapes voted for the Iraq War. With hindsight, would he now say it was a mistake? “If you look in Iraq today,” he said, “you look at the Kurds and the Kurdish region, you look at the GDP per head in Iraq, which is about eight times what it was under Saddam...you look at, even though they are flawed, free democratic elections, you look at the fact that most Iraqis would not ever want Saddam back, then I'd say in the broad sweep of history, you've got to look at it in that perspective.”

“It was a very difficult decision, but I was supportive of the Kurds,” he adds. He is speaking personally. “That's my own view. Other members of our group might take a different view. Some were not even in parliament at the time.”

Gapes similarly resists any attempt to categorise TIG as a party, despite it walking and quacking like one. “What's so exciting about this is that I'm with a group of people who are nice people, and I'm not spending all my time fighting within the political organisation to mitigate the damage, to minimise, to justify things that you don't like. So it will be a new start. Where it leads, I don't know. We're not a political party yet. We're barely ten days old.”

So questions about who he might eventually lead once the transition happens are stonewalled with chuckles. But he brooks no suggestion that the SDP, who he recalls split the Labour vote when he fought Ilford North in the 1983 general election, would make for a fitting comparison with his new outfit. “Let me nail this SDP thing straight away...it's nonsense.” 

Like his colleagues, Gapes argues they defy straightforward or illuminating comparison. “That's 40 years ago. That is not just a different decade, it's a different century.  It is a pre-digital era,” he says, also pointing to its majority of women MPs and the presence of multiple Tories. “Class-based identity politics was the dominant thing. Now the divisions are generational, they are cities and small towns, they are leave-remain, they are identity politics of different kinds.”

How TIG will turn that analysis into an electoral offer once they become a party remains to be seen, especially if more Labour MPs lose faith in what Gapes calls the “Waiting for Godot - or Waiting for Tom - option.” Chuka Umunna argues they should not be seen as existing on a conventional left-right spectrum, though Gapes still sees himself as a firmly left-of-centre politician and is equivocal about the word "centrist". 

“It's obviously a term of abuse: I'm a centrist dad, or a centrist grandad,” he said. “I don't care what other people call me. I'm beyond that. If you've been on Twitter, I've been a Red Tory, I've been sworn at, I've been threatened, I've had all kinds of stuff on social media. Basically, I don't care. It doesn't get to me at all now. The block button is quite useful. Telling people to ‘Trot off’ is something I've said many times.”

Gapes will nonetheless remain part of his new project no matter what course it takes as a party. “I'd want to be a part of shaping that. I've been really enthused by what we've achieved so far, and it's really fantastic.”

His ultimate ambition is seeing TIG or whatever succeeds it in government. But at what price? Gapes admits difficult questions await on policy. But on one issue he does not sound ready to compromise: putting the Tories into office. Asked whether he would like to see his friend Tom Tugendhat enter Downing Street, he says: “I certainly don't want a Conservative prime minister...I don't want a Conservative government in this country. I want to get rid of Conservative governments!”

TIG's convenor, Gavin Shuker, has suggested keeping one in office might be the price of securing a second referendum. Could it be a necessary evil? “There is no connection between who is prime minister and a People's Vote,” Gapes told me. 

For the Gang of Eleven, these questions will only get knottier – no matter how harmonious their collaborative decision making. But Gapes, who has not yet decided whether he will stand at the next election, is enjoying the honeymoon. Leaving was not without trauma. Unlike those that have won him internet fame, his resignation speech was scripted to ensure he maintained his composure. But even if Labour returns to the state Gapes knew and loved under a new leader, there will be no going back. “I will not rejoin. I’ve made a decision to leave. What happens with the Independent Group, and where this ends up - where I end up - I don’t know. But I can't rejoin having made that decision to leave. 

“I'm 66 years old, and frankly, I can't envisage myself going back. I've made a very significant change, and for me it was hard enough going through the process of leaving. I've been through a divorce. I know what divorces are like. I still have the friendships, but no.”

Nothing will make him regret the moment of catharsis. “For me, a big weight has been lifted - and I can think positively about trying to create a new way forward for the country. Whether it succeeds or not I don't know. But at least I can say I tried.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.