The seismic forces of Brexit erupted at Westminster yesterday when three Tory MPs broke away from the party and condemned the prime minister’s approach to leaving the European Union.
Their decision to join eight ex-Labour MPs in the “Independent Group” was hardly a surprise, given that they have been some of the most vocal critics of the government’s handling of Brexit and have repeatedly defied the whips to vote against and for aspects of legislation and motions concerning the EU.
Nevertheless, the move, which is the biggest split in British politics since the SDP formed in 1981, has ignited a new political movement launched by Chuka Umunna on Monday and could be the catalyst for a total realignment of the party system.
Indeed, one of the breakaway Tories, Heidi Allen, told journalists last night she hoped the Independent Group would precipitate such a realignment.
She said: “If we do our jobs right, there won’t be a Tory party to go back to.
“We are about creating something better that is bang smack in the centre-ground of British politics that people out there – I am convinced, we are all convinced – want.
“This is about the future, this is not about going back.”
However, that future is not so certain, because the cross-party appeal of the group in the Commons, combined with the Brexit crisis, could bring about an early election and end up resulting in the Independent Group’s imminent electoral demise.
Also beyond the immediate term, there will be serious challenges for the group of MPs as they transition into a fully-fledged political party. Though there is agreement that neither Corbynism or Brexit are desirable, the policies that the group will cohere round and the voting tactics that they will pursue is less clear.
The move also has the potential to pull Theresa May in conflicting directions.
Opponents of a no-deal believe the defections will put pressure on the prime minister to pursue a softer strategy if she is to keep the party together.
However, with her working majority now reduced to just eight, the resignations mean Mrs May will be even more dependent on the support of the DUP for survival.