The TIGgers bounded into British politics with the promise of doing things differently. Clowns to the left of them, jokers to the right, and all that. As a liberal centrist who is thoroughly dispirited by the current state of politics I was excited, particularly when the former Labour members were boosted by three Tory defectors.
But now the early momentum has run out, if you’ll pardon the expression, and the real challenge starts. How can this new, somewhat amorphous grouping operate in the rather strict confines of Westminster politics?
The political party that’s not yet a party, the group that has so far resisted having a traditional leadership or structure, is going to have to have to find a way to make that work in a place where structure and tradition matters a lot. As they are not a party, they are not guaranteed questions at Prime Ministers Questions, for example. Some of the members sit on and chair key select committees, notably Sarah Wollaston, who heads the powerful Liaison Committee that grills the Prime Minister. No doubt the major parties would like to put an end to that as soon as they can.
It is no surprise then that TIG headed over to the Electoral Commission this week to discuss the process of becoming a party. They may be sitting next to each other in the Commons for the moment, but they currently have no more rights than other MPs who have relinquished their party whip for whatever reason.
For Independent Group MPs used to working within two big political parties, suddenly being almost entirely by themselves must be something of a shock to the system. They’ve previously been in organisations where they had support networks to take care of a lot of the mundane administrative elements of politics. Not having that is a steep learning curve for all concerned. I’ve heard talk that a senior TIGger had to ask the Chief Whip of another minor grouping how Short Money, the cash dished out to opposition parties, worked.
And what of their much-speculated upon future relationship with the Liberal Democrats? One well-connected Lib Dem member told that discussions between TIG and the Lib Dems were happening “at all levels”. While some TIG MPs would no doubt sit comfortably in Vince Cable’s party, others are a more difficult fit. Apart from Brexit, there is little that would bond out-and-proud Thatcherite Anna Soubry, or same-sex marriage opponent Gavin Shuker, with the Lib Dems.
Away from the Liberal Democrats, building a substantive policy platform is going to be a major challenge. There is no huge hurry in that respect, after all the group has only just come into being and can legitimately focus on Brexit in the run up to March 29th. However, beyond that, we are not yet clear on what TIG is really going to fight for.
They have correctly identified the problems in politics, but soon they will have to provide some answers, preferably ones that they agree on. Again, Soubry is a clear outrider. Quite how her Thatcherite economics sits with the approach of the former Labour MPs will be interesting to watch. For the time being the members are all playing nicely, but there is a risk TIG descends into being a psycho-drama, not a political movement. (As a side point, we in the media must not get sucked into this. People deserve better than endless stories about who is still friends with whom.)
A document authored by group spokesman Chuka Umunna, and published today by an organisation called Progressive Centre UK, indicated both what the group might eventually all be about and how carefully they are currently having to tread. Umunna stressed in the forward that the pamphlet was written in a personal capacity. “Though all members of TIG share the same values and principles I have set out, and agree with much of what I have written,” he said, “the ideas contained herein should not be considered a manifesto or the official policies of our group”.
The risk is that TIG becomes little more than a centrist mulch, sacrificing being bold and both economically and socially liberal in an attempt keep everyone happy. If that happens, there is also the possibility that the more communitarian and statist tendencies of some of the original members could come to dominate. Hardly something classical liberals will celebrate, however much we may want to support the group.
It is crucial that TIG woo more defectors too, and a policy platform is both a help and a hindrance to this. Ian Austin not joining because of the group’s stance on Brexit was symptomatic of this issue. So far TIG looks like a collection of Remainer MPs clearly prioritising fighting for a second referendum. However, that can only last for so long. They need to attract the likes of Austin, who surely share many of the same values, Brexit fallout aside.
Eventually politics will move on (one hopes) and TIG needs to make sure its has both the parliamentary presence and membership base to have an impact.
If they get through all this, the TIGgers will then face their biggest challenge – winning parliamentary seats. If the government collapsed and a snap election were called tomorrow it’s hard to see how any of the current MPs would retain their place on the green benches. The project would be over before it had even started. But if Theresa May or her successor can struggle on until the next scheduled General Election in 2022 they might just have a chance, but it will mean building a serious party infrastructure.
I want to get behind TIG. It is clearly British politics requires an almighty shot in the arm. But away from the Nando’s meals and media rounds it is going to take a major effort to make it work. It is time for the TIGgers to show us what they are really made of.
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