Analysis: How the two main parties in the House of Commons started to crumble

Written by Gemma Fraser on 8 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Both the Conservative and Labour parties are in a state of chaos

Image credit: Holyrood

As if Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have enough problems.

His party is in crisis, he is at the centre of antisemitism claims, nine MPs have quit and his attempts to push for a second Brexit referendum could lead to mass resignations.

And then, to make matters worse, he joined the ranks of some of the most vilified politicians in history – including John Prescott, Nigel Farage, Jim Murphy and Nick Griffin – after being egged by a protester.

Since the Gang of Seven – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey – decided to quit the party and form the Independent Group last month, things have gone downhill at a rapid speed for Corbyn and the Labour Party as a whole.

Just a few days after the group was founded, an eighth Labour MP, Joan Ryan, quit the party to join them, along with Tory MPs Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen.

Then, Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley North, also left the party, though he has not joined his former colleagues in the Independent Group.

He told BBC West Midlands that he was “ashamed” of the Labour Party.

“I grew up listening to my dad, who was a refugee from the Holocaust, teaching me about the evils of hatred and prejudice,” he said.

“One of the main reasons I joined the Labour Party as a teenager here in Dudley, more than 35 years ago, was to fight racism and I could never have believed I would be leaving the Labour Party because of racism too.”

Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader and a constant thorn in Corbyn’s side, was quick to air his views on the resignations by posting a video online, where he admitted he “feared this day would come”.

He paid particular tribute to Berger – whose reasons for leaving Labour included the claim the party was “institutionally antisemitic”, saying: “If someone like Luciana no longer believes there is a home for her in the Labour Party, then many other colleagues will be asking themselves how they can stay.

“That’s why time is short for us. To confront the scale of the problem and meet the consequences. To keep others from leaving.”

Watson has therefore taken it upon himself to solve Labour’s problems – to eradicate antisemitism and stop other MPs from resigning – while behind the scenes, there are rumours of a coup and a ‘party within a party’.

He has earned public praise from former prime minister Tony Blair, who spoke about his “great leadership” on The Andrew Marr Show.

Blair said: “Tom has actually shown really great leadership, actually, for the Labour Party over these past weeks and I think, as a result of what he’s doing, he’s actually encouraging people who do share a perspective of the Labour Party as a governing, modern, progressive party, he’s actually encouraging them, in a sense, to stay because he’s providing a sort of space within which people can debate and argue.”

Watson seized the opportunity to show this leadership by forcing the suspension of Labour MP Chris Williamson, who said that Labour had been ‘too apologetic’ about antisemitism.

After an initial decision was made to investigate Williamson’s behaviour, Watson waded in, posting his views on Twitter for the world to see.

“Chris Williamson has produced a longwinded and heavily caveated apology,” he wrote. “It is not good enough. If it was in my gift, I would have removed the whip from him already.”

And if all that wasn’t bad enough for Corbyn, Jewish Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge then accused him of misleading her over the way the party was handling antisemitism accusations.

Hodge claimed Corbyn had “told me to my face” that his office did not intervene in antisemitism complaints, so was outraged by a report in The Observer claiming that internal documents showed senior Labour figures opposed recommendations last year to suspend several party activists accused of antisemitism.

In a letter to the Labour leader, she said: “I can only conclude that either you have intentionally misled me or your staff have been misleading you.”

Corbyn has also come under fire over Brexit after he said that the party would support another referendum as a way of blocking May’s deal.

Many shadow ministers have spoken out about the effects they believe a second vote could have on the UK, and Corbyn could face even more resignations from the party if he continues to take the plan to a Commons vote.

Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP who chairs Change Britain, told The Daily Telegraph: “It’s understandable why a number of my former colleagues – from both the frontbench and backbench – have spoken out against a second referendum.

“All Labour MPs stood on a manifesto to accept the referendum result. It would be wrong to renege on this commitment.

“The Labour leadership has a simple choice to make – do they respect the democratic choice made by the British public, or do they cave into the demands of London-centric, pro-EU campaigners who think they know better.

“Corbyn should be in no doubt that backing a second referendum would not only be hugely damaging to people’s faith in our democratic process, but also further alienate the party from its heartlands.”

While Corbyn watches his party crumble around him, the rest of us are left shaking our heads in disbelief at his abject failure to take advantage of the fact Theresa May is also watching her party crumble around her.

Surely the first rule of politics is to use any sign of weakness in your opponent for your own gain?

The Conservative Party is in utter chaos, and yet, somehow, May is still standing after surviving a vote of no confidence in her leadership of the party in December and a bid to remove her government from power in January.

But there is no doubt that the party is, like Labour, at crisis point.

Brexit, of course, is at the heart of it, steadfastly highlighting to the whole world how British politics works – or doesn’t work, to be more precise.

Just last month, more than 40 former British ambassadors and high commissioners wrote to the PM warning her that Brexit had become a “national crisis”.

The joint statement, signed by many of the most senior diplomats of the last 20 years, said: “As former diplomats who have served around the world, we have a clear understanding of what contributes to Britain’s influence in the world. Our advice to Theresa May today is clear: we should not leave the EU when we have no clarity about our final destination. Instead we must use the mechanisms at our disposal. Above all, we must seek to extend the Article 50 negotiating period.”

They continued: “Our country’s national interest must always be paramount. The Brexit fiasco has already weakened the UK’s standing in the world. We strongly advocate a change of direction before it is too late. It is clear that Brexit has turned into a national crisis.

“There is no possible deal that will be a sensible alternative to the privileged one we have today as members of the EU with a seat at the table, inside the single market and customs union but outside the Euro[zone] and Schengen [area].”

They also suggested a second referendum, stating there is a “powerful argument” to ask people whether they want a negotiated Brexit deal or whether they would prefer to stay in the EU.

And then there’s the Chris Grayling scandal. His ferry contract blunder with a firm which had no experience and owned no ships forced the UK Government to pay out £33m to Eurotunnel.

But despite this, he told reporters that he would “carry on serving the Prime Minister as long as she wants me to”.

In another parallel with the crisis within Labour, the Tories are also embroiled in their own racism scandal after allowing an activist, previously suspended for making Islamophobic comments, to stand as a council candidate.

Peter Lamb was disciplined after a series of comments he made on social media about Muslims came to light, but will stand as a Conservative candidate in the Harlow District Council elections in May.

In 2015, Lamb tweeted: “Islam like alcoholism [sic]. The first step to recovery is admit you have a problem.”

Former Tory co-chair Baroness Warsi said the party “remains in denial” about the fact Islamophobia is “institutional” within the party.

She told PoliticsHome: “I have been raising these issues for over three years and yet still the party fails to act.

“We now have daily examples of the most vile racist and Islamophobic comments from both elected representatives and members, and still the party remains in denial.”

It remains to be seen how this period in British politics will be portrayed in the history books, but with Brexit and institutional racism hanging like dark clouds over the House of Commons, it’s most certainly not going to make for pleasant reading.

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