A brief history of the defections and resignations in the British Parliament
W Stephen Gilbert
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.