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Tony Blair has said the Independent Group (TIG) of breakaway MPs are “courageous” but he will stay in Labour as he is “deeply attached” to the party.
Blair, a long-standing critic Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, denied he was involved with TIG MPs’ plan to split the party but said he had “sympathy” with them.
Speaking to BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, he added: “I’m in touch with them and I have spoken to some of them.
“I’ve got a great deal of sympathy with what they’re doing and what they’re saying.”
Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker and others cited Corbyn’s delay in taking a more pro-EU stance and the party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism as among the reasons for splitting away.
It comes amid speculation more Labour MPs could be tempted to leave Labour to sit with the new group, for which Streatham MP Chuka Umunna is spokesman and three pro-EU Tory MPs joined last week.
Blair said he hopes to “bring the Labour Party back” to the centre ground.
He added: “I’m staying in the Labour Party. I’ve been in the Labour Party for over 40 years, I led it for 13 years, I was longest-serving Labour prime minister, I’m deeply attached to the Labour Party.
“But do I sympathise with what they have done? Yes, I do. I think they’re courageous in having done it.”
Blair said he is “deeply concerned” about Labour’s direction and policy, adding: “If you want to get back to winning ways, this is not the position to be in.”
He said he believed Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has “shown really great leadership” in recent weeks.
It comes amid reports Watson has set up a social democratic group within the party that will come up with policy ideas.
The deputy has also clashed with the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby over how anti-Semitism complaints are handled.
Blair added: “As a result of what he’s doing, he’s encouraging people who do share a perspective of the Labour Party as a governing, modern, progressive party, he’s actually encouraging them in a sense to stay because he’s providing a space within which people can debate and argue.”
The former PM also welcomed Labour’s switch to backing a second referendum on Brexit.
Blair added: “I think it’s absolutely inevitable that if you put the choice before the country – hard Brexit Tory party, hard-left Labour Party – it doesn’t matter what I say, what I want to happen, what anyone else says, you leave that amount of fertile territory open, someone is going to cultivate it.”
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s opposition Labour Party will back a new referendum on Brexit after parliament defeated its alternative plan for leaving the European Union, its eurosceptic leader Jeremy Corbyn said, softening his reservations about a second popular vote.
With 29 days left until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, the leaders of Britain’s two main parties have been forced into making key turns on the divorce in recent days.
After months of saying that Britain must leave the EU on time on March 29, May opened up the possibility on Tuesday of a short limited extension to the exit date.
Corbyn, who voted against membership in 1975 and gave only reluctant backing to the 2016 campaign to stay, on Wednesday gave ambiguous backing for another referendum, saying he would push for one alongside a national election.
It is the first time since Britons voted in 2016 to leave the EU that one of its two major political parties has thrown its weight behind giving voters a chance to change their minds. It was unclear what the exact question might be.
“After tonight’s votes in parliament, we’ll continue to push for a close economic relationship based on our credible alternative plan or a general election,” Corbyn said.
“We’ll also back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or disastrous no deal.”
John McDonnell, the second most powerful man in the Labour Party, said it would put down an amendment calling for a second referendum as soon as May brought a deal back to parliament.
Britain’s Brexit minister, Steve Barclay, said there was no consensus in parliament for another referendum or even on what question might be asked.
After May’s deal was rejected on Jan. 15 in the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern British history, she is hoping to bring back a tweaked divorce accord for a vote, which could come as early as next week but may not take place until March 12.
If her deal is voted down, May has promised that lawmakers will get a chance to vote the day after on whether to leave with no deal and then on March 14 to vote on asking the EU to delay the deadline.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that the EU would agree to extend the Brexit deadline beyond March 29 only if Britain justified such a request with a clear objective.
Lawmakers on Wednesday voted 502-20 in support of an amendment proposed by opposition Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper that spelled out May’s proposed timetable.
Chuka Umunna has called on voters to join breakaway Labour and Tory MPs in building a new “movement” that represents modern Britain.
In a sign that the Independent Group (TIG) will form a fully fledged parliamentary party, the former Labour MP called for the public to “join us, and help us forge a new, different kind of politics for Britain’s future”.
Umunna, who represents Streatham in south London, is one of eight former Labour MPs who have joined forces with three former Tories to make a new group in the Commons.
TIG does not have a leader or a detailed policy platform, but an Opinium poll for the Observer has put the group’s support at 6% – a point ahead of the Lib Dems.
The former Labour frontbencher said the two main parties had become “dominated by extremes”, citing factional infighting in his old party and the influence of hardline Brexiters on the Tories.
“This week we have come together in the national interest, to say ‘enough is enough’. We have each put everything on the line to give something new a try. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision for any of us,” Umunna said.
“We don’t yet know the destination where the path we’ve taken will lead us. But what me and my Independent Group colleagues are absolutely clear about is that we cannot and must not recreate the old parties with their tribalism and incompetence.
“As we embark on this new chapter, most importantly we want you to help us build a new movement, and we’re keen to hear from you. Join us, and help us forge a new, different kind of politics for Britain’s future.”
TIG’s MPs all campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, while Umunna has been a prominent supporter of a second referendum.
The former shadow business secretary and Labour leadership contender has been described as the obvious candidate to lead TIG in the Commons, where the 11-strong group equals the Lib Dems in size and outnumbers the DUP by one.
There has been continued speculation that more Labour and Tory MPs will quit and potentially join the new group in the coming days and weeks as Brexit comes to a head.
The departures already mark the biggest parliamentary schism since the formation of the Social Democratic party in the 1980s.
However, many of TIG’s MPs will face a huge challenge if they want to hold on to their seats in a future election.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and several members of his shadow cabinet staged a rally in the Tory breakaway Anna Soubry’s Broxtowe constituency on Saturday.
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said MPs who left Labour had “betrayed” their seats and would be defeated if elections were held.
Fighting for seats in a general election will require significant funding, although TIG has already attracted support from major donors who have abandoned the main parties in recent months.
But now he has thrown his weight behind the 8 Labour and 3 Tory MPs who quit their parties this week to form the so-called ‘TIG’.
He told The Observer “intimidation and bullying” has become “endemic” in the Labour Party “for all to see” – and he now feels “relief” at abandoning Labour.
I’m a Londoner, born and bred. It’s in my blood. I can’t imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else. And being a member of the Labour party is much the same. I was 15 when I first joined and it’s where I met many of my closest friends. Being Labour is a big part of who I am.
Luciana Berger speaking at the launch of the Independent Group on 18 February, where she resigned over antisemitism, Mirror
He added: “I have watched, with ever-growing concern, the deterioration, especially over the past year, of the extent and nature of the naked antisemitism which has increased throughout the Labour party and its supporters, since Jeremy Corbyn and his cabal of revolutionaries took control of the Labour party which I had so admired and supported with commitment and enthusiasm.”
Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins, who previously donated to the Tories and then the Lib Dems, indicated to The Times on Saturday that he could also give TIG financial backing.
“I believe that any money I put in to the Independent Group will be money well spent because I think Theresa May is destroying the economy,” he said.
“This is about our children and grandchildren and the future of this country.”
Meanwhile Sadiq Khan warned there has been “a collapse in trust” between Labour and the Jewish community and said the last week had been “the most distressing and depressing of my 33 years in the party”.
Many Jewish people feel Labour is “unwilling” to tackle anti-Semitism, he wrote, and “Sadly, it’s now possible that the Jewish Labour Movement will never reach its 100-year anniversary.’
And the Mail on Sunday reports that Dame Louise Ellman could be the next MP to quit the Labour Party.
A friend of the Jewish MP told the newspaper: “Louise will not be in the party for much longer.”
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson today declared there is a “crisis for the soul of the Labour Party”, branded the situation “perilous” and demanded Jeremy Corbyn take personal control of the anti-Semitism row.
He said he had sent a file of 50 Labour anti-Semitism cases to the Labour leader that he felt had been inadequately dealt with.
But Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner insisted the number of cases was a “tiny” proportion of the Labour membership and said just 61 alleged anti-Semites had been expelled or left in anticipation they’d been booted out.
Earlier this week the new Independent Group of MPs claimed they had already had thousands of donations – and claimed they will declare them “in due course”.
Because the group is not a registered political party, it does not have to declare donations unless they come to its individual MPs.
Labour and the Conservatives could face more resignations, with members of the new Independent Group saying they expect more MPs to join them
So far, eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have quit their parties and joined forces as the Independent Group.
From Labour, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, and Joan Ryan have all left.
It wasn’t long before Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston followed.
Here we answer some of your biggest questions about what is now the fourth-largest group in Parliament.
Are there going to be by-elections?
Jeremy Corbyn has said the Labour MPs who have quit the party should “resign and put themselves up for election”.
In a video posted on Twitter, the Labour leader said it was the “decent and democratic thing to do” because the MPs wanted to “abandon the policies on which they were elected”.
If an MP changes or leaves the party they were elected under, there does not automatically have to be a by-election.
This is because at the ballot box voters chose the individual they wanted as their MP, not the party they wanted running the country.
However, the defectors could trigger a by-election by resigning as MPs.
They could then immediately stand for election in the same constituency – that’s what Conservative Zac Goldsmith did in 2016. (He lost his 23,015 majority and was ousted).
But these MPs don’t want to face a by-election right now.
Voters can also call for a petition to recall their MP – and trigger a by-election.
But this can only happen under specific circumstances, such as an MP being convicted of an offence and receiving a custodial sentence. And none of these conditions apply to the members of the Independent Group.
As it stands, if they were to run in a by-election (or any general election) the name the Independent Group wouldn’t appear on the ballot paper because they’re not registered as a political party.
Who funds them?
On their website, the group of MPs say they are “supported” by a company called Gemini A Ltd, which was set up last month by Labour defector Mr Shuker.
Since they launched, they have been crowd-funding via their website.
But because they are not a registered political party, they don’t have to play by the rules of the Electoral Commission and disclose their financial backers.
However, they say they intend to do so anyway and will publish all donations over £7,500 alongside donors’ names.
If the group registers with the commission, the MPs would be entitled to “short money” – that is funding given to opposition parities in Parliament to support them in their parliamentary business, expenses and costs of running.
Which one is the leader?
Because it is not a political party – yet – the Independent Group does not have to have a leader.
But it is thought they will choose one at some point.
Chuka Umunna – who briefly stood to be leader of the Labour Party and is seen as the driving force behind the Labour MPs – is most often touted as a potential leader.
Anna Soubry, who has a high media profile, might also be seen as a candidate.
But, sources say, they are still trying to recruit new members so it would not be a good idea to select a leader at this stage.
The group is due to meet next week to work out who will speak for them at Parliamentary occasions, such as responding to the Chancellor’s Spring Statement, and who will take on the job of whip, to organise their voting in Parliament.
What do they stand for?
The group has not published a manifesto – but it does have a list of 11 “values”, which it claims the main political parties have forgotten.
Top of the list is the belief that Britain is a “great country of which people are rightly proud” – and the government must do “whatever it takes” to protect national security.
Notably, there is no sign of Brexit on the list, although it mentions “maintaining strong alliances with our closest European and international allies on trade, regulation, defence, security and counter-terrorism”.
On inequality, the group calls for the “barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination” to be removed – and says everybody should make a contribution to society.
It also says it believes that:
“Paid work should be secure and pay should be fair”
“We have a responsibility to future generations to protect our environment”
Britain “works best as a diverse, mixed social market economy” with “well-regulated private enterprise”
“The collective provision of public services and the NHS can be delivered through government action”
“Our free media, the rule of law, and our open, tolerant and respectful democratic society should be cherished and renewed”
It remains to be seen which policies the Independent Group would adopt to enact their values.
What are the potential tensions?
The Independent Group have bonded over their shared desire to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Some of them have been working together for months as members of the cross-party People’s Vote campaign for another EU referendum.
Former Conservative Heidi Allen said they had been “clinging to each other like on a shipwreck” during the “chaos” of Brexit, and had begun to realise they had “quite a lot in common” with each other.
They do come from different sides of the traditional political divide – and there may be tensions over issues such as austerity and the privatisation of public services.
Last year, Luciana Berger, then a Labour MP, blamed austerity for having a “devastating cumulative impact” on her constituents and Chuka Umunna has said austerity “failed” and “disproportionately hit the poorest”.
Anna Soubry – a minister in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government – has defended then Chancellor George Osborne’s public spending cuts and welfare freeze.
But Heidi Allen has been highly critical of welfare cuts too, and Universal Credit in particular.
Asked on BBC Newsnight if they could all agree on issues such as this, Ms Allen said “probably not, but it doesn’t matter because this is a fresh start”.
All 11 have signed up to the broad principles in their founding statement – and share a socially liberal outlook and a belief in a “mixed economy” with free markets and publicly-owned services.
How powerful will they be in Parliament?
With 11 members, they are the fourth largest group of MPs – behind the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP, and equal to the Lib Dems.
They are bigger than Plaid Cymru and the DUP – the party on whom Theresa May depends to pass legislation.
As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg explains: “When a government has no majority on its own, even shy of a dozen MPs can wield political strength.
“The defections change not just the official arithmetic in Parliament, but its alchemy and atmosphere.”
If they were to surpass the SNP’s Westminster cohort – which would require 24 more MPs – the party would become Parliament’s third largest.
That would then entitle them to various privileges, including getting a guaranteed two questions at Prime Minister’s Questions.
How will it impact Brexit?
In terms of the parliamentary votes, it won’t. These MPs were defying their former party whips on Brexit long before they quit.
But if enough Tories leave, Mrs May’s slim majority will be wiped out, throwing her plans to get a tweaked version of her Brexit deal through Parliament into even more doubt.