London, United Kingdom – A flurry of defections by MPs from the UK’s two main political parties has raised the prospect of a realignment in British politics as the clock ticks towards the deadline for the country to leave the European Union.
The breakaway “Independent Group” created by 11 MPs from both the opposition Labour and ruling Conservative parties threatens to upend the normal rules of politics as divisions over Brexit deepen.
Nonetheless, the development does not change the parliamentary arithmetic – and Brexit remains on schedule to take place on March 29 unless MPs force Prime Minister Theresa May to delay.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, told Al Jazeera: “These resignations are a crack in the dam and we might see a trickle to begin with, but then again dams can burst quite quickly.
“We know both parties are polarised, there is a gap among voters, neither party seems particularly competent and neither is seen as having the national interest at heart – so there is actually a lot of space for politicians who can convince people that they do.”
For the Labour MPs it was anti-semitism first, and then Brexit; for the Conservative MPs it is about Brexit, and about it undoing the modernisation of the Conservative Party.
David Jeffery, lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool
The resignantions began on Monday when seven Labour MPs quit.
Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey were on the right of the party and hostile to changes under its leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn. They were followed on Wednesday by an eighth, Joan Ryan.
Then MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston left the Conservatives on Wednesday saying the party had been hijacked by hardline advocates of Brexit who were “destroying” efforts to modernise it.
For some time analysts have been predicting splits of this kind as divisions over Brexit create new tensions in British politics.
A key factor that will now determine the fate of the new independent grouping, and whether it moves to form a new party, will be the MPs’ reasons for defecting.
The Labour breakaways were motivated strongly by allegations of anti-semitism among party members and Corbyn, a longstanding advocate of Palestinian rights, with Brexit just one factor in their decision.
They are angry at Corbyn’s apparent efforts to block a new referendum that in theory could reverse the decision to leave the EU taken in a plebiscite in 2016.
Bale said: “The Labour split was more inevitable than the Conservative split; there is so much unhappiness on the Labour benches with Jeremy Corbyn for so many reasons that it was almost unavoidable because there is no possibility of getting rid of him before the next election.
“Those MPs are deeply politically and personally upset with what has happened to the Labour Party under his leadership.”
For the Conservative defectors, a key motive was anger at May’s Brexit strategy. Critics say she is trying to run down the clock until March 29 without a potential EU withdrawal deal in order to compel MPs to back her own proposals.
May’s apparent appeasement of hardline Brexiters in a lobby within the party called the European Research Group (ERG) has disappointed many colleagues.
Britain’s Labour Party MP Chuka Umunna makes an announcement he is leaving the party [Simon Dawson/Reuters]
David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool, said that on balance, the splinter group does not represent the tectonic shift that some had predicted.
“It doesn’t seem like a grand realignment because these MPs are not where the empty space in British politics is.”
He added that although the defections are more damaging to the Conservative Party because it is in power, the Labour MPs were taking a moral stand.
“For the Labour MPs it was anti-semitism first, and then Brexit; for the Conservative MPs it is about Brexit, and about it undoing the modernisation of the Conservative Party.
“If Brexit wasn’t an issue or if there was a different policy that wasn’t beholden in their eyes to the ERG, they probably wouldn’t have defected.”
The rebels’ next steps
These ideological differences will be significant in determining the rebels’ next steps.
Registering as a new political party would be a high-stakes gamble in Britain’s political system, where newcomers find it notoriously difficult to survive.
Previous splits of this magnitude have ended in tears for the splinter groups. In 1981, for example, leading Labour figures quit to launch the Social Democratic Party – which was massacred in the subsequent general election.
The Liberal Democrats, an existing party with 11 MPs that claims the centre ground of British politics, could take advantage of the latest resignations – or find itself being squeezed.
Jeffery said: “Where the Independent group goes next is important. Will they act like a party or will they act simply as a pressure group and then, come the next election, will they try to defend their own constituencies?”
Moreover, Brexit has already spawned new parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigned successfully to quit the EU but failed to win parliamentary seats.
If it looks as if this has captured the public imagination then it may have more legs than some cynics imagine
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London
Ideological differences and hard political reality could, therefore, make the new alliance fragile – although not without influence.
Bale said: “I don’t think it will prosper unless more MPs follow, but those who might be tempted both in the Labour and Conservative ranks will be watching both leaders’ reactions to this – particularly when it comes to Brexit.
“They will also be keeping a careful eye on opinion polls because if after some Conservatives have joined this group you begin to see a kind of snowball effect, then other MPs might think it is worth jumping ship.
“So it really depends on the kind of excitement and momentum that this generates. If it looks as if this has captured the public imagination then it may have more legs than some cynics imagine.”
Can the defections impact Brexit?
Despite the buzz that the defections have generated, however, they do not change the parliamentary arithmetic over Brexit.
Jeffery said: “These are MPs who were already willing to vote against the government on key Brexit votes, so in terms of the arithmetic it’s not significant.
“On Brexit, the power is all in Jeremy Corbyn’s hands and with the ERG at the moment.
“The clock is ticking anyway and they have a fight on their hands to stop Brexit, but they will have an even bigger fight come the general election. They face a very steep uphill battle.”
Nonetheless, Bale believes the new group could succeed in influencing the Brexit stance taken by both party leaders.
He said: “The mathematics may not change but I think it does change the morale in both parties.
“Both May and Corbyn will now have to think whether their Brexit positions may actually increase the chances of other MPs leaving.”
Children killed in attack on Cameroonian school
Assailants storm private school in city of Kumba, Southwest Region, killing at least four students.Attackers have opened fire on a private school in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, killing at least four children, according to officials. The unknown assailants stormed the Mother Francisca School in the city of Kumba on Saturday. There was no immediate claim of…
Assailants storm private school in city of Kumba, Southwest Region, killing at least four students.Attackers have opened fire on a private school in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, killing at least four children, according to officials.
The unknown assailants stormed the Mother Francisca School in the city of Kumba on Saturday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
“They attacked around noon. They found the children in a class and they opened fire on them,” Kumba sub-prefect Ali Anougou told the Reuters news agency.
At least nine other students were wounded and sent to the hospital. There were fears the death toll could rise.
The Associated Press news agency quoted Anougou as blaming separatists who have been fighting the military in parts of western Cameroon for the attack.
Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions – the Northwest and Southwest Regions – are home to a large minority of English speakers in a country where French speakers are the overwhelming majority – a situation that is the legacy of the decolonisation of western Africa by France and Britain more than 60 years ago.
In late 2016, long-standing complaints of political and economic discrimination against English speakers by the central government spilled over when lawyers, students and teachers began calling for reforms.
The government’s lethal response to the protests provoked rebels to declare in 2017 independence for a region they call “Ambazonia”, triggering a stronger crackdown by the authorities.
Both sides have since been accused of committing atrocities in a conflict that has killed some 3,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Anglophone secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against President Paul Biya’s government.
Last year, officials blamed separatists for kidnapping dozens of schoolchildren, charges the separatists denied.
Vietnamese envoy hails KRCS’ global humanitarian efforts
KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer meets Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh. – KUNAKUWAIT: Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh hailed the humanitarian efforts of Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) around the world. The remarks were made to KUNA yesterday after the ambassador’s meeting with KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer. He expressed appreciation…
KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer meets Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh. – KUNAKUWAIT: Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh hailed the humanitarian efforts of Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) around the world. The remarks were made to KUNA yesterday after the ambassador’s meeting with KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer. He expressed appreciation for the society’s aid to the Vietnamese Embassy during the coronavirus crisis.
The ambassador added that they discussed providing his country with aid to face the impact of the recent floods and landslides, considered to be the worst in decades. Sayer said he was pleased with the ambassador’s visit and affirmed that KRCS will continue exerting humanitarian efforts to aid those affected by natural disasters and crises everywhere. – KUNA
Pain, frustration: Expats lose jobs to new rules and COVID
File photos show foreign workers applying to leave Kuwait during the amnesty. – Photos by Yasser Al-ZayyatBy Chidi Emmanuel After working for 24 years in Kuwait, Charley Lyon received the dreaded letter that many expats fear amid the economic downturn, coronavirus pandemic and new residency laws. Lyon is among thousands of expat workers in the…
File photos show foreign workers applying to leave Kuwait during the amnesty. – Photos by Yasser Al-ZayyatBy Chidi Emmanuel
After working for 24 years in Kuwait, Charley Lyon received the dreaded letter that many expats fear amid the economic downturn, coronavirus pandemic and new residency laws. Lyon is among thousands of expat workers in the government sector who were being laid off.
As part of its Kuwaitization policy, Kuwait is replacing expats with locals in the government sector. The government has also stopped issuing work permits to expats over 60 years of age without a university degree. These new rules have had a huge impact on the lives of thousands of expats in the country, leaving many with no choice but to pack their bags and leave.
Gulf countries are facing an exodus of foreign workers as the coronavirus pandemic pushes out foreign workers. In the midst of the COVID-19 and financial crunch, the National Assembly approved a draft law to slash expat numbers over the next five years.
As the budget deficit widens and economic conditions worsen, Kuwait is grappling with an economic downturn as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world. The combined shock of collapsing oil prices, the pandemic and joblessness is reshaping labor policies in the region, thus bringing anti-foreigner sentiments to the fore again.
While Kuwait’s expats struggle to secure their jobs, the government is calling for an increase in workforce nationalization in government entities. “Why will foreigners take the jobs meant for us (Kuwaitis)? They can work anywhere – but not in the ministries,” argued Abdullah, a 26-year-old Kuwaiti.
Buttressing Abdullah’s viewpoint, Fatma, an unemployed Kuwaiti woman, complained of the difficulty in competing with foreign workers for jobs in the private sector. “Foreign workers can work longer for less, unlike us Kuwaitis. So most companies prefer to hire non-Kuwaitis. This leaves us with only one sector (the public sector). I think this is why the government introduced Kuwaitization, so as to give unemployed Kuwaitis an opportunity,” she explained.
For Lyon, justice and fairness should override anti-expat sentiments. “It is understandable that ministries would give preference to locals for jobs during these tough times, but it would be fair to consider the efforts of the old staff who have put in their best to build this country,” Lyon, 61, and some of his co-workers who were laid off recently lamented, as they worry about their future.
Expats make up the majority of the population of Kuwait. Residency is tied to employment and Kuwait does not easily offer citizenship routes to non-nationals. “We have been here (in Kuwait) legally for over 20 years. It will be difficult to go back and start afresh in our home countries. More so, Kuwait’s residency is linked to the work permit – when you lose your job, you automatically lose your residency. I worry about my children who are still in school. The three-month notice will not be enough to relocate them,” Mustapha, an Egyptian expat who recently lost his job, said in dismay.
Abdurazak Hamad, an African expat, is in a dilemma. “I feel miserable leaving my family behind. I don’t want to go alone, but I can’t make my wife quit her KD 450 job since she is now the sole breadwinner. Starting afresh in my home country at this age (62) will be very difficult. I wish I can get a permit (residency) to stay here with my family,” said Hamad, who was recently sacked.