It's been an unusual week in politics – for the first time in what feels like forever, Theresa May's dismal attempts to secure a Brexit deal hasn't been the main thing on commentators' lips. Instead, "The Independent Group", a breakaway group of anti-Brexit MPs from Labour and now the Conservatives too, has been front and centre – and the new party's numbers look set to grow over the coming days, according to reports on Thursday morning. So, who are these people, what do they stand for and, most importantly, do they actually have any sway over the direction of Brexit? Here goes...
Who are the Independent Group?
So far, there are 11 people in the group, of various generations and backgrounds: eight former Labour MPs and three former Conservatives. The seven ex-Labour members – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Chris Leslie – announced their historic move away from their party in a joint press conference on Monday morning; while the eighth former Labour member, Joan Ryan, and the three former Conservatives – Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – joined them on Wednesday.
Everyone has their own reasons for leaving their party, but several common themes have emerged, with some citing the scourge of antisemitism within the party, Jeremy Corbyn's "weak" leadership, his wishy-washy stance on Brexit. The ex-Tories were more ill at ease due to the power of the "hard-line anti-EU awkward squad" (Anna Soubry's words) over the party (that's Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest of the pro-Leave European Research Group). Both sets of MPs have said it's not them as individual politicians that have "changed" in recent times, but their parties.
It's worth noting that the group isn't a political party yet, but a registered company, meaning it can't yet field candidates in elections and doesn't have to disclose its financial backers (although its members have left the door open to changing its status in future).
What do they stand for?
We know what the Independent Group is against – Brexit, antisemitism, the "old" politics of left and right – but, at the moment at least, it's less clear what they're for, other than a "new" way of doing things. "Politics is broken. Let’s change it," is their slogan, and they're using the hashtag #ChangePolitics. The group's values, which are broadly centrist, are vaguely outlined on its website (which briefly crashed during Monday's press conference), but it's nowhere close to having fully fleshed-out policies yet.
"Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century in the party’s interests," the group says, adding that it "aim[s] to recognise the value of healthy debate, show tolerance towards different opinions and seek to reach across outdated divides and build consensus to tackle Britain’s problems."
As for who will lead the group, Chuka Umunna is a strong contender. In an interview on Tuesday, he said he wanted as much sway over the group's future as possible. When it comes to future elections, success looks unlikely while the group has the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system (which advantages the two main parties) to contend with, despite a snap poll by Sky News on Tuesday suggesting it was already more popular than the Lib Dems. It's a struggle for smaller parties to convert votes into Parliamentary seats, something that UKIP, which won over 900,000 votes in the 2010 general election and not a single seat in the House of Commons, knows all too well. But Parliamentary seats aren't the only way to affect political change these days – as UKIP's long battle for a referendum on EU membership, despite having no MPs, highlights.
What does The Independent Group mean for Brexit?
Its members all support a second referendum Brexit, or People's Vote, but given that there are just 36 days until the UK officially leaves the EU, the chance of it having much impact before then are slim. It's unlikely to affect Theresa May's Brexit deal negotiations in the short-term, commentators predict. However, the group's formation is a boon for the wider campaign for another public vote, particularly if it finally manages to encourage Labour to decisively back a second referendum, which is the most the most realistic way for this to happen.
There's speculation that, by creating a splinter group so late in the day, The Independent Group is hoping to encourage Labour's front bench to change its non-committal stance on Brexit, by demonstrating that a sizeable number of voters would consider leaving Labour to support them. As journalist Charlie Cooper writes in Politico, however: "It’s a risky strategy and its chance of success — like so much in Brexit politics over the coming weeks — profoundly uncertain."