Kevin Maguire: Labour split latest - it's still full steam ahead
In Luciana Berger's case, anti-Semitism is the overriding reason for quitting.
Moments after Theresa May's latest humiliating Brexit blow in Parliament, Labour Europhile Ben Bradshaw messaged like-minded party comrades on a pro referendum WhatsApp group. “I do hope this does not mean” said the former Culture Secretary, “colleagues are about to do something silly.”
The “silly” is resign the Labour whip, sit as independents, join the Liberal Democrats or attempt to form an SDP Mark II new centrist party after the first proved such a gift-wrapped present for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives with a big blue bow and balloon attached.
Westminster's waiting for when not if a Labour splinter faction, implacably hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, starts quitting. MPs such as Bradshaw, on the Right of the party, fear the Labour leavers would weaken his wing and damage causes close to his heart, particularly the fight to keep Britain in Europe.
Resignations are expected to begin within days. First to depart the party, according to informed sources, will be prominent figures outside Parliament followed by MPs on the green benches. Five names keep coming up: Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Luciana Berger. A sixth, Ann Coffey, is also heard and she's been seen dining with the plotters. Lack of point blank denials speak volumes, Umunna and Smith trotting out a rehearsed co-ordinated line that Corbyn's driving them to the edge and it's a leader's responsibility to hold a party together.
Labour Corbynsceptic MPs staying loyal to the party, fighting their corner from within instead of without, told me they wished those going would get it over with. “If they're off, then I wish they'd bloody do it,” one told me. “Drawing out the agony might work for them, gaining publicity and keeping their options open, but it's a nightmare for the rest of us. I suppose they don't care about that.”
Reasons given by the plotters are Labour's shift to the Left, Corbyn's incompetence and, of course, ingrained Eurosceptic Corbyn's wish for a soft Brexit by locking the people's vote option in a cupboard. In Berger's case, anti-Semitism is the overriding issue. The horribly-abused Jewish MP despairs at the leadership's failure to eradicate a vile stain contaminating a progressive party preaching decency. Owen Smith, an old Tribunite is in a different political area of the party to Umunna's gang, isn't expected to join them despite a surprise admission he was “considering” his position. The challenger to Corbyn in 2016's beef is again Europe but allies whisper he acknowledges the battle is over the policy and raising disloyalty was an unhelpful diversion.
Corbyn's office has largely written off the others, the only unknowns for the leader's team the precise timing and whether the group tear up party card's one by one to give the impression of a domino effect or the half a dozen jump together to make a single big splash. “They haven't got a Bill Rodgers let alone a Roy Jenkins, David Owen or Shirley Williams. They're mainly nobodies unable to come to terms with they're not somebodies, motivated by personal disappointment and thwarted ambition,” was the verdict of a dismissed member of Corbyn's shadow cabinet.
Ukip Tory MP recruits Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless triggered byelections to secure constituency mandates when swapping blue for purple rosettes before the 2016 referendum. The balance of opinion is Corbyn's ship jumping MPs will dodge democracy, mindful Bruce Douglas-Mann lost Mitcham and Mordern in 1981 as the sole member risking a 1981 byelection among 28 Labour defectors to the SDP. The bulk of the rest were culled at the following General Election, a split opposition handing Thatcher a crushing victory on a plate with the Falklands War the cheery on top of a cake baked by Labour renegades.
The chipping away at Labour in Parliament's gone largely unmarked up to now. Six MPs who've resigned or lost the Labour whip - John Woodcock, Ivan Lewis, Jared O'Mara, Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins and jailed Fiona Onasanya - could, if they had much in common, form the sixth largest grouping behind the Tories, Labour itself, SNP, Liberal Democrats and DUP but ahead of Plaid Cymru and the single Green and Independent Unionist.
Corbyn's party down half a dozen MPs to 256 from the 262 after the 2017 election result is two fewer than Gordon Brown's 258 at the 2010 election. The glue of governing is holding civil war Tories in a poisoned party while Labour splinters in opposition. How many MPs Corbyn eventually loses is impossible to calculate yet MPs such as Bradshaw fear there'll be only one winner and it isn't Labour, the Libs or a new party. It's the Tories. The divided Conservatives, if they paused for a moment from trying to kill each other, couldn't believe their luck.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor at the Daily Mirror.