42

Leavings

A brief history of the defections and resignations in the British Parliament

W Stephen Gilbert

(back row left to right) Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes, (middle row, left to right) Angela Smith, Luciana Berger and Ann Coffey, (front row, left to right) Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Joan Ryan, following a press conference for the Independent Group where the three Conservative MPs, Wollaston, Allen and Soubry, announced their resignation from the party. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo Wednesday February 20, 2019. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Tony Benn used to say that he grew more radical as he got older. As in many things, Benn was unusual. People are generally apt to grow more reactionary as they get older. This is particularly true of MPs of all persuasions. For all its timid and marginal reforms of itself, the Palace of Westminster is still more like a traditional gentlemen’s club than any other institution. MPs are easily lulled by the comforts and the rhythms of the House.

Generally, MPs sit on about 150 days each year, spread over some 35 weeks, with sessions of up to eight hours on the first four days of sitting weeks. Of course, the relative diligence and application of each MP is up to her, depending to a degree on how safe her seat is, how much attention the media pays to her, whether she is an ideologue, how extensive are her interests outside the House, and how many parliamentary roles she is prepared to take on.

MPs enjoy multiple benefits: clerical and research assistance; a constant flow of information; privileged access to a great many desirable resources, events and contacts; subsidised food and drink; and scope for claiming whopping expenses on top of the £77,000+ annual salary for a backbencher. They are automatically cast as public figures and may parlay themselves into being household names with all the dividends such fame brings.

Becoming an MP projects you into a dizzying world of statesmen and women, diplomats, international financiers, captains of industry, media executives, intellectuals and celebrities of all kinds. That many members lose touch with their grassroots, particularly if their voters are far away both physically and in their daily circumstances, is hardly to be wondered at. The perks of wielding power, even no more power than ready access to ministers, can become addictive. It’s easy enough for them to forget what they came to Westminster to do.

Some are ambitious from the start. When he was first elected aged 32 at the 2010 election and became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the party leader Ed Miliband within four months, Chuka Umunna must have feel that the top of the greasy pole was already in sight. “A week in politics is a long time” as Harold Wilson taught us, and one may proceed “from zero to hero”, as the saying goes, in surprisingly short order.

My mother died in July 1988. She was reasonably well informed but I’m sure she would not have heard of the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury (one of the least visible government posts). Yet in less than two-and-a-half years, he was prime minister. John Major’s rise was unusually meteoric. Not till Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn both came from the margins in a matter of months were there comparable phenomena in western leadership.

But you never know with politics. Falls from grace can be very much swifter. Stephen Crabb was evidently seen by both David Cameron and George Osborne as the anointed successor, and he duly put himself forward after Cameron’s resignation. He yielded to Theresa May, but retained his post as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, credibly the crown prince. Within four months, he was back on the backbenches, having been revealed as a serial sexual harasser by text. Given that anger against sex pests has grown and hardened since Crabb’s fall, it seems highly unlikely that he will ever hold office again.

It’s not only scandalous, corrupt or inappropriate behaviour that is apt to debar one from the front line. The great majority of those members who have permanently walked out on the parties in whose name they were elected have been rewarded with no further grip on the levers of power. As we have learnt this month, such loss of prospects never deters them. Leaving one’s party is the baby step in this ritual.

Joining an existing grouping is a more dramatic move and specifically moving to the opposite benches – as the three Tory quitters did – has dramatic and symbolic value. The nine who left Labour of course remained in opposition, so they merely rearranged themselves on the opposition benches. Moving to the opposite benches is known as crossing the floor. It is a ritual enacted frequently since the end of the seventeenth century.

The first MP to leave a major party in order to try to set up a new one was Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, a man steeped in the shenanigans of the politically active aristocracy when governance was dominated by dukes and earls. Though he sat for the same constituency for half a century, he was variously a minister in Tory, Whig and Peelite governments, not to mention the coalition known as the Ministry of All the Talents (1806-7).

In 1818, Williams Wynn attempted to set up a new party to support the cause of Earl Temple – Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Greville, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, to admit the full splendour of his hero’s name. The attempt failed and the conspirators rejoined the Tories, though some of them thought Williams Wynn too Whiggish to do so.

Williams Wynn and his elder brother, a fellow MP, were known as Bubble & Squeak. The younger man suffered from a speech impediment, ruthlessly mocked in the Commons, and when he unsuccessfully stood for the post of Speaker of the House, he inevitably became known as Mr Squeaker. Personal abuse of members is no new departure. However, he did become Father of the House and as an authority on parliamentary procedure, he was the most celebrated of the age.

In the modern era, the only comparably mobile politician has been the one-time SDP leader David Owen, who presently sits in the Lords as an “independent social democrat” but has supported Labour (including financially) under Corbyn’s leadership, some 35 years after he left the party under Michael Foot’s leadership.

Since World War II, there have been numerous departures from the main parties, most of them temporary, and a few crossings of the floor. In 1954, seven MPs left the Labour Party and sat as independents over the passionately debated issue of German rearmament. They all returned less than six months later, along with Nye Bevan, who had had the whip withdrawn for leading a revolt over nuclear testing only a month previously. Ten MPs resigned the Tory whip over Suez, a further seven (including Foot) the Labour whip over the nuclear issue. All returned later.

One of the highest profile defectors was Desmond Donnelly who in 1968 left Labour to sit independently over defence cuts and was subsequently expelled from Labour. He joined the Tories but then set up something called the Democratic Party, though its policies were to the right of almost the whole of the Conservative Party, and he lost his seat in 1970. Over his career, Donnelly changed parties five times. Four years after falling out of the public eye, he took his own life.

The largest parliamentary split before 1981 occurred in 1968 when 23 Labour MPs (including Foot again) abstained in a vote on spending cuts and were suspended for a month, sitting as independents. There were a couple more Labour departures over spending cuts in the 1970s, but the decade’s movements were most often inspired by the shifting dynamics of Northern Ireland representation. Some individual defections were covered with over-egged enthusiasm by the media – those of Dick Taverne, Reg Prentice, Christopher Mayhew and John Stonehouse. The creation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 eventually led to 29 MPs, including Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, leaving Labour and one the Tories.

In 1991, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were suspended by Labour for alleged links with Militant. In 1994, nine Tories were suspended for not supporting a confidence motion in John Major’s government. Over the next few years, several Tory MPs scattered in various directions, among them Emma Nicholson, George Gardiner, Peter Temple-Morris, and Alan Howarth, Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward, these last three given ministerial jobs by Tony Blair, even though they might be characterised as ‘entryists’. Among prominent Labour MPs who jumped ship were Brian Sedgemore and Clare Short.

The 2010s brought several whip suspensions as a result of the expenses scandal. In 2014, Duncan Carswell and Mark Reckless defected from the Tories to UKIP and unusually had the gumption to test their decision at by-elections, which they both won. Reckless lost his seat in the 2015 general election and Carswell fell out with UKIP. It’s worth noting here that Jeremy Corbyn, who legendarily defied the whip 428 times during the Labour governments of 1997-2010, has never resigned the whip or had it withdrawn and indeed has never voted with the Tories against Labour. His defiance has always been aimed at inducing the PLP to be more Socialist.

In the last year or two, various MPs have been suspended or have resigned in face of alleged breaches. Frank Field, a career maverick, has sat as an independent since August last year and the Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd resigned the whip in December because of his opposition to a further referendum on EU membership, to a conspicuous lack of media attention.

Politics is a spectrum. Harold Wilson famously accounted the Labour Party “broad church”, a description that also covers the Tories and the SNP, less so the LibDems. The parties in Northern Ireland might justly be deemed narrow church. From its very inception, Labour has been an uneasy alliance of Socialists and Social Democrats. As is true of so many organisations, enmity between allies can be sharper than that felt towards one’s formal enemies.

It’s no surprise, then, that some individuals feel themselves becoming detached from the mother ship. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary notoriously dubbed the liberally-minded cabinet minister John Biffen “semi-detached”. Biffen himself went further; after Thatcher dropped him from office, he described her as Stalinist, an insult in Tory circles quite as potent as calling someone racist is in Labour. However, Biffen never resigned the whip or had it withdrawn.

Sir Hartley Shawcross was Attorney General in the Attlee government and notoriously declared “we are the masters now” after the 1945 landslide. Always an individualist, he grew disenchanted with Labour and, though remaining a Labour MP, was nicknamed Sir Shortly Floorcross. When he was elevated to the Lords in 1959, he sat as a crossbencher.

And then there are the February 2019 defections. It remains to be seen if they remain independents – they call themselves the Independent Group – or launch a coherent party to challenge all the others or return to their respective parties of origin. However, Labour has moved smartly to replace the defectors as candidates in their constituencies, so that last option will not remain open unless they can secure party nominations elsewhere.

Given the vehemence of their condemnation of the respective parties that they have left, the chances of reconciliation look slight. Party loyalists take the understandable view that these MPs are now numbered among their opponents and hence do not merit kind words. The three departing Tory MPs cited the ‘culture’ in the party as quite as significant in their decision as was leaving the EU. As an opponent of the Tories, I agree with them about the culture, but I imagine there will be many loyal party members working their socks off for the party at the grass roots who will bitterly resent the implication that they are not as high-minded as the three, just as thousands of Labour members resent being embraced in an indiscriminate condemnation of the party by its own malcontents.

Politics is widely said to be in an evil-minded phase. Nothing that has occurred this month has ameliorated that mood. But the defectors need to remember that, apart from Roy Jenkins being appointed President of the EU Commission, none of those who left to form the SDP ever held high office again.

W Stephen Gilbert has been a writer, journalist and sometime television producer since 1971, when his first play appeared in the first season of Play for Today on BBC1. His books include first biographies of Dennis Potter and Jeremy Corbyn. He mostly passes his twilight years indexing other writers’ books.

Filed under: featured, historical perspectives, latest, UK

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W Stephen Gilbert has been a writer, journalist and sometime television producer since 1971, when his first play appeared in the first season of Play for Today on BBC1. His books include first biographies of Dennis Potter and Jeremy Corbyn. He mostly passes his twilight years indexing other writers’ books.

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Marou
Reader
Marou

I thought Off Guardian was devoted to articles the Guardian wouldn’t print for sinister reasons. Clearly the policy is now to give a platform to any ‘will this do?’ google trawl which no reputable output would give space to for fear of sending its readers to sleep. Stick to indexing, Gilbert.

j
Reader

It’s fine to disagree with the content of any article but why choose to be so rude? You lose all credibility by not expressing your own opinion of the subject matter or giving reasons as to what points you do not accept as being valid. Simply posting sarky comments attacking the writer and media platform, you come across as a troll.

ragheadthefiendlyterrorist
Reader

In India, any politician elected to a body (parliament, state legislature, local council, whatever) from one party who resigns his or her party membership is, under a law promulgated back in the 1980s, automatically removed from the seat he or she occupies and has to seek election again.

Michael McNulty
Reader
Michael McNulty

So they’re Independent enough to leave their party but not independent enough to leave their party seat?

j
Reader

A very interesting and informative article. Despite the media coverage, feel the actions of these defectors is more a distraction than anything meaningful because they don’t have the numbers. Noticable though that all of them want a second referendum but yet none are willing to put their so called outward looking, centrist politics to the test and allow their constituents who afterall, voted for each of them under a different banner and a specific manifesto, a chance to decide … how democratic. Our shameful system of governance is now so deeply flawed that despite extensive evidence of wrong doing, including:… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

Rotten to the core.

comite espartaco
Reader

The Palace of Westminster is ‘still more like a traditional gentlemen’s club’ because of people like Tony Benn, Viscount of Stansgate, someone that, as son and grandson of MP’s, could play at ‘radical’ politics meanwhile he busied himself promoting his sons and grandsons’ political careers and consolidating his parliamentary dynasty in that illustrious Palace. Benn is the quintessential example of a type of oligarchic politics that prevents the limitation of mandates and, therefore, promotes and furthers the expropriation of public office and the use of the Labour Party in the benefit of a minority of exploiters and, ultimately, justifies the… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

Tony Benn was one of the few genuine socialist politicians and a person of rare integrity, fighting against imperialism, exploitation, and for social justice all his life.

No one can control the circumstances of their birth. It is no more acceptable to sneer at someone’s privileged background than it is to sneer at a deprived background.

Mikalina
Reader
Mikalina

Adam Curtis’ film shows Tony Benn in his true colours:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsgJIpYreis (at 25.43)

j
Reader

@Mikalina

No evidence to support your claim about Tony Benn in the Adam Curtis film. You’ve chosen not to reply which suggests you made it up and was simply trolling!

j
Reader

Clicked on the link and watched 40 mins of the film you quoted last night to see if it confirmed your claim. It’s mostly about Jim Slater and Tiny Rowlands’s record of buying and asset stripping companies. Only point where Tony Benn is mentioned is at 26.09 – 26.35 for 23 seconds which reveals nothing of significance. Film does say Labour party was duped by Jim Slater’s claim of increasing productivity but’s that’s about it. Can you please explain why you feel this film reveals information that shows Tony Benn in what you seem to regard as a negative light… Read more »

comite espartaco
Reader

A process of de-industrialisation to destroy the industrial proletariat in Britain, aided by the grandees of the Labour Party. Déjà vu.

Paul
Reader
Paul

Very true. I’ve been dipping into Benn’s diaries (particularly in relation to the 1st Referundum) and was struck by his allegiance to aristocratic tradition; he clearly saw himself as part of that. He arranged his children’s weddings etc in the Commons chapel and delighted in showing people the paintings in No 10 of his father and grandfather both of whom were senior politicians who served in governments. He was part of a dynasty and wanted his offspring to take their place at the top of British society. Recently people have been saying he would be turning in his grave at… Read more »

comite espartaco
Reader

That’s right. The Benns are just helping themselves and they carry out consistent family policies through an adulterated Labour.

Fair dinkum
Reader
Fair dinkum

The vast majority of politicians around the world serve two masters.
Mammon and the Drainstream media.
The Israeli hierarchy, the Military Industrial Complex, the One Per Cent and Corporate Oligarchs are merely the messengers for avarice.
When one attains a seat in the foul cesspits of authority and lawmaking, one is obliged/coerced to play the perverse game of expediency.
Unless one has a heart.
The world is done for.

gotsyurblinkerson?
Reader
gotsyurblinkerson?

….yes – all is a construction to serve the Game – where divison is priority – to confuse and rupture… keep the flock bleeting for more – so amazes me how folk just keep on believing this pathetic twaddle of containment – I guess they must get off on it….triggers them, makes them feel energized perhaps ?

bevin
Reader
bevin

Skwawkbox is reporting that another Four will leave this weekend, with more to come so long as there is room on TV and in The Guardian for them. No doubt there will be the, now ritual, recitation of the idiotic canard that those who oppose Israeli imperialism are anti-semites. Or to put it in plain English if you object to the injustice being done to Palestinians you must hate Jews. This expression of solidarity with the Israeli government comes at a particularly embarrassing time for those who ignore that government’s roots in fascism, the chosen ideology of the Jabotinsky zionist… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

“One million Arab lives are not worth a Jewish finger nail.” Begin.

DunGroanin
Reader
DunGroanin

Wow. Very informative. Thanks.

Jay-Q
Reader
Jay-Q

My 17 year old son is now smarter and sharper than me, I admit it – he thinks that the reason why the establishment (he just said ‘they’) are out to get Corbyn is because he would likely not go along with any future US war. The USUK alliance needs there to be two main party’s in power that would both go along with their warmongering (my words). I was like, wow, where did you get that from? Said that him and mates had been talking about it and that’s how they saw it from all the online games they… Read more »

Anticitizen one
Reader
Anticitizen one

Perhaps that answers the burning question. Why is John Bolton not outraged at the lack of democracy in the corrupt dictatorship of the UK? If you’re reading this John there’s still a bit of oil and gas left in the North Sea.

Tom
Reader
Tom

The US is already in charge, so no need for another coup. Brexit gives them a chance to tighten their grip politically and plunder our economy, without EU oversight and regulation. That’s why they’re so desperate to have a corrupt Tory regime in charge rather than Corbyn – and hence they have leant on their New Labour Fifth column to resign and cause trouble.

failedevolution (@failedevolution)
Reader

UK’s panicked neoliberal regime desperate to build a third loyal party to halt Corbyn’s progressive counterattack
https://failedevolution.blogspot.com/2019/02/uks-panicked-neoliberal-regime.html

bc
Reader
bc

“From its very inception, Labour has been an uneasy alliance of Socialists and Social Democrats”

Not even the most generous, revisionist definition of the term ‘social democrat’ can accommodate the likes of Shaun Woodward, Lord Digby Jones, Lord Sugar, etc. Thanks to Blair and Brown, the bulk of today’s PLP can still more accurately be termed neoliberals.

DunGroanin
Reader
DunGroanin

Absolutely hillarious censorship on Suzanne Moores opinion piece lecturing that the anti Corbynites shouldn’t be labelled Blairites.

370 comments flagged. But they are disappeared!

Jules Moules
Reader
Jules Moules

Damn, the majority of her vapid witterings are normally not open to comments. Missed this opportunity to get modded. Again.

Caratacus
Reader

I fully expect to see Theresa Klebb join the Independence Group in the near term …

John
Reader
John

They all have one thing in common……Zionism

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

Why was I not surprised when, intrigued by that Dracula family face in the centre, I read that it belonged to Luciana Berger?

vexarb
Reader
vexarb

PS Mark has explained it below: Lucia, poor girl, happens to be the spitting image of Morticia in the Adams family. My subconscious was obviously undergoing a Proustian experience, a La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

mark
Reader
mark

This bunch of complete ar**holes and Zionist stooges won’t last 5 minutes beyond the next general election. It’s lost deposit time, folks. And that could be in weeks or a couple of months. They seem to think they’ve got a cosy billet till 2022, but they’re wrong. Brexit is 800 hours away and all bets are off. More disgruntled resignations from the mutinous community are on the cards by 29/3. And when they get their a*ses kicked out at the next GE, there won’t even be a cushy little Brussels sinecure in charge of bendy bananas on half a million… Read more »

Frankly Speaking
Reader
Frankly Speaking

Ah, so charming to see dangerous Trotskyists alive and kicking in the Labour Party and here. Too dumb to realise that post-Brexit Britain will be one under the neoliberal and Atlantacist cosh.

mark
Reader
mark

Don’t worry, Frank, they’re heavily outnumbered by all the 30 shekel whore Friends of Israel.

chaize
Reader
chaize

Is that Mr. Bean in the back row?

mark
Reader
mark

The ugly bitch right in the middle looks like Morticia in the Addams Family. All we need now is Lurch and Uncle Fester.

Anticitizen one
Reader
Anticitizen one

If carlsberg did photoshoots it would be on that balcony with a phosphorus grenade.

Paul
Reader
Paul

They are Dead Duck MP’s like May is a Dead Duck PM. They’ll never stand again and must know it. Their influence drains away like a cheap battery. They don’t/can’t act as a group like a political party so they are immediately powerless beyond their media friends to showcase them. Anna is the only one with any sort of political ‘voice’, at least you can hear and understand what she’s saying however obnoxious it is. It’s hard to discern what the others are actually saying they are so shy of saying ‘Trying to Remain in the EU and ignore the… Read more »

mark
Reader
mark

May thought she had a 12 month lease of life when she survived Moggy’s assassination attempt. But there is a new move to force her out after the local elections in May (ie after April.) I think most of these clowns are living on borrowed time. We can get a general election any time. That’s what all the anti semitic garbage is about – just nobbling Jezza from getting in to 10 Downing St.

Paul
Reader
Paul

I don’t think the Tiggers will take off until John Mann and Jess Phillips join them. No really! And they can’t afford to be so snooty about Ian Austin; they say they want to help the needy and there is a chance to give support to an old man with deep anger issues. But they turn their backs on him (more dangerous than they appreciate perhaps). And they ought to welcome in those under police or party investigations for abuse or fraud, they too deserve a break surely?

barovsky
Reader

Hmmmm… I think William Morris summed up ‘parliamentary democracy’ [sic] over century ago: “There — it sickens one to have to wade through this grimy sea of opportunism. What a spectacle of shuffling, lies, vacillation and imbecility does this Game Political offer to us? I cannot conclude without an earnest appeal to those Socialists, of whatever section, who may be drawn towards the vortex of Parliamentarism, to think better of it while there is yet time. “If we ally ourselves to any of the presen[t] parties they will only use us as a cat’s-paw; and on the other hand, if… Read more »

Jay-Q
Reader
Jay-Q

I’ll just leave this here, it’s hilarious!

Ray Raven
Reader
Ray Raven

Well beyond hilarious.
The commentary is accurate, correct and brilliant.