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James Chapman’s Democrats notion is a doomed distraction

August 12th, 2017

The existing parties are the only ones that can stop Brexit

James Chapman is not a name that many people will have been aware of before this week. Some will remember him as the Political Editor of the Daily Mail; a few might recall that he became George Osborne’s Director of Communications after the 2015 election; fewer still will have known that he was briefly Chief of Staff at David Davis’ Brexit Department. He has, however, now burst back onto the political scene with what is for now still very much a one-man crusade for a new party – The Democrats – to save Britain from herself and from Brexit.

The as-yet unanswered question is who is lurking behind Chapman’s twitter-shower. There can be little doubt that there are enough wealthy Remainers who would be happy to help fund a meaningful anti-Brexit party for it to be financially viable. Much bigger questions remain, however, about personnel. Parties need candidates, they need support staff (plus the infrastructure and data to work in and with), and above all, they need a visible and capable leader and, ideally, elected representatives. Unless there are to be defections, the personnel question will doom the Democrats from the start.

Two quick examples of the growth of start-up parties should suffice to illustrate the point. UKIP – the party which the Democrats would most closely resemble politically (albeit in mirror image) – was founded in 1991 as the Anti-Federalist League. A decade later, despite having established a place for itself in the political firmament, it was still winning only 1.5% of the vote and it would be 23 years after their formation before they gained their first elected MP (and that following a defection). The Greens had an even slower growth, taking 37 years to win representation at Westminster. By contrast, Brexit Day is scheduled for only a little over a year and a half.

The parallel that Chapman is no doubt keener to emulate and exceed is that of the SDP, formed not as a grass-roots insurgent party but, via defections, born mature: with a high-profile, experienced leader and a sizable Commons contingent and which found itself (in alliance with the Liberals – a crucial distinction) polling well into the 40s only a year after launching. If so, he can dream on.

    For all the overtures to Europhile Tory MPs (who?) or Corbyn-sceptic Labour Remainers, the fact is that neither group has any incentive to defect. If Tory Europhiles did want to disrupt the Brexit process, they could do so just as effectively by rebelling from within – May’s majority remains on a knife-edge either way.

Again, by one of history’s little ironies, the Tory Maastricht rebels provide the best template. Yet no such organised rebellions have occurred since the referendum; there is no desire to go down that road, still less to take the fatal step of splitting.

Labour Europhiles have even less cause to switch. They remain by far in the majority in both their party at large and in the Commons. They know that despite their leader’s ambivalence on the subject, they might still be able to control the effective policy simply by taking advantage of Corbyn’s lack of interest in Brexit (and, perhaps, by working with Starmer behind the scenes). They also know that in terms of the leadership, time is on their side: Labour’s pro-European majority will long outlast Corbyn.

But that fact also hints at another reason as to why the Democrats are (or would be – it hasn’t even launched yet) doomed: there is much more to politics than Brexit. Even if a determination to remain within the EU (or to leave on the softest terms, or to rejoin at the earliest opportunity), unites some MPs across parties, much more divides them. What would its Education policy be? Defence? Welfare? Health? Energy? Transport? These are bread-and-butter issues that matter on the doorstep and which those with experience of elections pay great attention. Given the Tories’ experience this Spring, I doubt it’s likely that defecting MPs would be happy to subcontract policy in these critical areas to a sometime-journalist/advisor with no electoral experience.

That assumes that Chapman would continue to play the leading role he’s delighted in so far, which he may not if the concept ever gets beyond the confines of his laptop. One intriguing question, which he was happy to play up, is whether George Osborne is involved in some way. Indeed, ConHome ran an article on Thursday asking that very question and answering why he might be.

ConHome is not, of course, without its own agenda. For my part, I find it difficult to believe that Osborne would want to return to front-line politics so soon after leaving it, and to return in such an unorthodox manner. Perhaps he has spoken with Chapman and given him advice but even if so, that is a long way from committing to lead a new minor party. His involvement would bring credibility, contacts and money; what it wouldn’t do is bring MPs – indeed, it would actively put off many Labour MPs from getting involved.

Besides, there is an elephant in the room – or at least, a bird of liberty. What would the Democrats offer that the Lib Dems don’t? Chapman would say (and has said) that the Lib Dems are tainted by their coalition years. That’s true though they’re not terminally tainted, any more than Labour was terminally tainted by the Winter of Discontent or Iraq, or the Tories were by the Three Day Week, the Poll Tax, the ERM or the Corn Laws. Cable can never entirely disassociate himself from the coalition (and in particular, tuition fees) but those arguments do seem from another era now: an awful lot has happened since 2010.

No, the bigger problem the Lib Dems face as far as making Brexit a core vote-driver – and an even bigger problem the Democrats would face – is that even now, it simply isn’t that big a driver and is likely to be still less so in 2022. The Lib Dems fought the 2017 election as the pro-EU party, against the pro-Brexit Tories and a deeply divided Labour. Much good it did them: they won their lowest vote-per-candidate score since 1886. The public simply decided that other things mattered more, or that if, as a Remainer, making a stand on Brexit was important, then Labour was an adequate vehicle through which to do it.

The Democrats may or may not launch. My guess will be that they do: Chapman would look pretty silly if after all his tweeting (including about the Democrats forming governments: talk about hubris!), nothing at all came of it. But whether or not they make a fleeting impression, their cause is doomed: they are neither needed nor wanted.

David Herdson