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On the surface, Labour’s new breakaway group of MPs should not make too much difference to Brexit. Their early pronouncements focused on the culture of bullying and intimidation that has taken root in their old party, rather than European questions.

And since all seven MPs in the new Independents Group are noted pro-Europeans, the fact that they will be sitting in a slightly different configuration in the House of Commons should not make much difference to voting patterns.

But take a slightly deeper look, and there certainly are implications for the future of Brexit. The first change concerns Labour’s attitude to a second referendum. It seems a given that Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would prefer if he possibly can to resist demands for a new poll.

But the emergence of The Independents might change calculations just a little.

At first sight, the Labour defections might harden Corbynite hearts. Some of the Party’s most fervent pro-Europeans have gone. The Labour Left is now even more firmly than ever entrenched in control of the Party.

Why should they buckle now, just at the moment when membership churn and likely replacement MPs are making them ever stronger?

The answer lies in the need to at least appear pro-European in the eyes of a Party membership that is overwhelmingly pro-EU, and which also favours just that second referendum which Corbyn would prefer to resist.

The Labour rebels and their (ex-) leader are now in a struggle for hearts and minds. Neither can afford to look anti-European. In Corbyn’s case, he knows that the forthcoming second meaningful vote on 27 February could be a defining moment.

If he refuses to back the amendment put down by the Labour MPs Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle, which would provide for a referendum if Parliament does pass the Prime Minister’s deal, more Labour MPs will almost certainly defect.

Corbyn now has an invidious choice before him – one that would face any Labour leader. Does he signal that he will go along with his leadership, and maybe even help the UK to stay within the EU?

Or does he stick with his own private views, and his MPs from Leave seats who are very, very worried about appearing to obstruct Brexit?

He will almost certainly lose MPs from his front bench team whichever way he turns. But the defection of The Independents shifts the dial on the risks involved.

There are quite simply more MPs likely to resign the Whip if Corbyn refuses to back a referendum than there are if he blows with the Labour breeze.

And more senior figures might walk out: it is hard to see Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s increasingly-embattled Shadow Brexit Secretary, sticking at his post if a referendum is finally taken off the table by Labour itself.

There are other tactical reasons why Labour might well now back a referendum.

It is far from clear that there are the numbers for it in the Commons anyway. So Labour can probably commit to the idea while knowing that there will be not be enough Tory rebels to secure passage for the Wilson and Kyle amendment – while also blaming Labour eurosceptics for the measure’s frustration.

All that is likely enough of a smokescreen to allow Labour to vote for a referendum while hoping, within the leader’s office, that it does not pass.

On the other side of the equation, there must now be a temptation for Theresa May to make a break for it at a snap election. Her opponents appear to be in disarray – again.

She can maintain a veneer of Conservative unity under the banner of renegotiation for a little while longer, something that no-one can imagine once she is forced to defy the fantasy demands the European Research Group have been making.

The polls have registered a little bit of wind in her sails. There must be a temptation to cut the Gordian knot with which she is confronted.

But we have seen this scenario played out once already. May is a terrible campaigner; the Conservatives have a threadbare policy cupboard once we turn to the everyday matters of domestic policy that decide elections; Labour’s programme is quite popular if they can only get a hearing – which they will at a General Election.

At best, the Conservatives might gain a handful of seats, as a recent methodologically-advanced megapoll by YouGov demonstrated. That would not solve any of their dilemmas.

The only thing that would help them would be a narrow defeat after which they could dump the whole mess in Labour’s lap and watch them split: hardly an encouraging prospect for a Prime Minister clinging to office and any hope of a legacy as it is.

Britain’s politics is in a mess. The stresses being exerted by Brexit is testing both main parties near to breaking point.

The issues involved criss-cross both parties like crazy paving; both leader’s attempts to punt the problem into the long grass have built up the pressures within the system until they are near-intolerable.

And that raises a third implication of the Labour breakaway: that more splits are likely.

If the Prime Minister is forced to tack towards a No Deal Brexit, small numbers of Tory Remainers and moderates might break away themselves, whether they join The Independent Group or not. If May delays Brexit, the ERG might declare its own semi-independence.

Here is the real risk: that Parliament might become so balkanised and confused that it cannot agree on anything. Then Brussels and the EU27 will not be able to detect just what last-minute concession might work, even if they were minded to make one.

And Britain might crash out in a welter of recrimination and bitterness. That is not the most likely outcome, but it is not impossible either.

The Labour breakaway means that pressure for a referendum has probably mounted further. In the end, that Party might be forced to back it – in the same watery manner that its leader campaigned for Remain in the first place.

The chances of a new General Election have also probably gone up, as has the prospect of a chaotic and unmanaged Brexit. The Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement – in essence the only deal Britain can or ever will get if the parties do not accept free movement – as ever looks friendless.

It’s a new sort of independence all round. No-one will enjoy it.

By Glen O’Hara, professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University.


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