What chance for a new 'centre ground' party in the UK?

Emannuel MacronImage copyright EPA Image caption Emannuel Macron:Can anyone in the UK emulate his success?

New political parties have a remarkably high failure rate in the UK.They almost never succeed - but are things different now?

The success of new French President Emmanuel Macron, who created a liberal pro-European party of government, En Marche, from scratch in less than two years, has made some people wonder if it could happen in the UK.

Conventional wisdom says a fresh face could never rise so rapidly to the top - the first-past-the-post electoral system is biased in favour of the existing "big two" parties, the argument goes.

But politics is more fast-moving and fluid than it has ever been and there appears, to some at least, to be a gap in the market.

"The Tories are committing Euro-suicide.Labour is kidding itself that a party with no economic policy can govern.There is a chasm in the middle of British politics," wrote Tony Blair's former speech writer Philip Collins recently in the Times.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption En Marche of the Day:Gary Lineker is looking for a political home

Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, said on Twitter this week that a new party looks increasingly "tempting" (although he does not spell out what it might stand for).

Even Gary Lineker has got in on the act.

"Anyone else feel politically homeless?Everything seems far right or way left.Something sensibly centrist might appeal?" Lineker asked Twitter recently.

Within minutes, one of the Match-of-the-Day-presenter's followers had called for the creation of En Marche of the Day, with the ex-England footballer as leader, naturally.

Anti-Brexit Conservative MP Anna Soubry sounded like she could hardly wait for the birth of a new party in a New Statesman interview[1].

"If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds - actually things which I've believed in all my life - better get on with it."

But she was speaking before the general election.

Labour is back in business

Image copyright PA Image caption The Corbyn surge has silenced talk of a Labour breakaway for now

Jeremy Corbyn's better-than-expected performance at the general election has killed off any talk of new parties in the Labour ranks, for now.

"Moderate" Labour MPs who thought Mr Corbyn was leading their party to oblivion have been forced to eat their words and rally behind him, as he agitates for another general election.

But the truce may be temporary, says Prof Tim Bale, of London's Queen Mary university, with continued "scepticism" among Labour MPs about "whether the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the Labour Party can actually get it into government in the long term".

"I don't think the split between the Parliamentary Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn has gone away.It's probably gone underground for a little bit but it hasn't disappeared," he adds.

We already have a centre ground party

Image caption Sir Vince Cable offers a friendly welcome to Labour "refugees"

"Why don't you join the Liberals?" is the taunt currently being directed at "moderate" Labour MPs by the more hard core Corbynistas.

Lib Dem leader elect Sir Vince Cable has said he would happily provide shelter for "refugees" from Labour but he is directing his energy towards "cross-party" working to scupper what he regards as Theresa May's "hard" Brexit.

With just 12 MPs, he knows that this is his party's best hope of wielding any real influence, for now.

The rise of the 'definitely-not-a-new-party'

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Tony Blair:It's a "new policy platform", not a party, OK?

If launching a new party is too hard, why not launch something that looks a bit like a new party but isn't?Something that could, perhaps, be quickly turned into one if the time was right.

Earlier this year, Tony Blair launched a "new policy platform to refill the wide open space in the middle of politics".The former Labour prime minister insisted his Institute for Global Change was more than a think tank, saying it will arm politicians with policies to "rebuild" the centre ground and combat the growth of right wing populism.

Former Lib Dem leader, Lord Ashdown, has, meanwhile, helped to set up More United, an organisation inspired by the words of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who famously appealed for tolerance in her maiden Commons speech.

More United pumped some fairly serious cash into the campaigns of mainly Labour and Lib Dem MPs - the sole Tory was Anna Soubry - at this year's general election.

The money was raised through crowdfunding and the MPs who got elected, and who had signed up to More United's policy agenda - tolerance, "working with the EU" and fighting inequality - are proudly displayed on the group's website[2], sans party branding.

Bye, then

Image copyright PA Image caption Robert Kilroy-Silk:He ran out of parties to join

Recent British politics is littered with the remains of dead parties.Here are just a few of them:

Libertas - Ambitious attempt to set up a pan-European party by Irish telecom magnate Declan Ganley.Won one European Parliament seat in France.

Veritas - Where Robert Kilroy-Silk went when he stormed out of UKIP.Merged with another Eurosceptic fringe outfit, the English Democrats, after Kilroy-Silk's departure.

NO2EU - Late rail union leader Bob Crow's bid to make the left-wing case for leaving the EU.Morphed into a trade-unions-against-the-EU campaign.

The Jury Team - Late millionaire Tory donor Sir Paul Judge poured money into independent candidates.Few were elected.

Your Party - An early stab at crowd sourcing policies by a group of marketing executives.Met with apathy and quietly killed off.

It can be done

Image copyright EPA Image caption Nigel Farage:Owes it all to the European Parliament?

It is not all doom - small parties can and do break through on to the national stage in the UK.The public are willing to give them a hearing in a way that they never did in the past - witness the seven-way debates at election time and the extraordinary rise of the SNP.

But the ones that succeed tend to be born in the angry margins, speaking up for voters who feel their views are being ignored by the mainstream.The "centre ground" tends to be the preserve of political insiders, who can come with a lot of unhelpful baggage.

UKIP and the Green Party both built successful grass-roots movements from the ground up, gaining their first foothold in the European Parliament, which uses a form of proportional representation and is therefore kinder to smaller parties.

Neither has been able to get more than one MP elected at Westminster, however.To do that, you probably still need to attract significant numbers of MPs from other parties, to make you look like a serious contender for power.

Like the SDP did.

Three letters that spell disaster?

Image caption The Gang of Four:Cheer up, it might never happen

They were going to "break the mould of British politics" and for a brief period it looked like they might just do it.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was formed in the early 1980s by a group of high-profile Labour MPs disillusioned with the "hard left" direction their party was taking.

The new "centre ground" force soared in the opinion polls and eventually recruited 28 Labour MPs, and one Tory, to its ranks.

Their efforts to gain power through an alliance with the Liberal Party succeeded in getting a quarter of votes at the 1983 election, but, thanks to first-past-the-post voting, that only translated into 23 MPs.They had a similar result in 1987 prompting moves which ended up with a merger with the older party - to form what would become the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems went on to get more than 50 MPs at later elections but the party has so far failed to match their 1980s vote share.

Waiting for the great leap forward

Image caption SDP leader Steve Winstone:Yes, it is still a thing

The SDP never quite died.David Owen's party lives on, minus David Owen or any of the original "gang of four" founders, its flickering flame kept alive by a handful of diehards who never accepted the merger with the Liberals and new members attracted by what they see as its "sensible", centrist message.

"Just because we failed once, it doesn't mean we are going to fail again," says SDP leader Steve Winstone, a former UKIP election candidate.

Today's SDP, which got fewer than 500 votes at the general election, is all about "direct democracy", electoral reform and regional government.It is based in Sheffield and claims to be growing quickly.

The Liberal Party also survived the 1988 merger.Its leader, Steve Radford, got 2,000 more votes than the Liberal Democrat candidate at this year's general election in the Liverpool, West Derby constituency, although still finished third.

He looks forward to the creation of a new centre ground party at Westminster because it would "take a great weight off our shoulders", ending the public's confusion between the Liberal Democrat "defectors" and his own party, which he says is the true home of "liberalism".

"They (the Lib Dems) have damaged our brand," he tells BBC News.

The SDP and the Liberal Party are both in favour of Brexit because, they say, the people voted for it.Neither leader would discuss the size of their parties' membership, but it is not a large number.Oh, and - 80s nostalgists take note - Steve Winstone has not ruled out an alliance with the Liberals to fight for electoral reform...

'We live in interesting times'

Image caption Is there anybody out there who could lead a new party?

So, if building a movement from the grass roots is a non-starter, if you have ambitions of running the country, but launching a new party with the same old, tarnished Westminster faces is likely to turn voters off, then what exactly would it take?

"You would need at least 100 or so MPs," and it would need to be a "spectacular" and game-changing coup, says Prof Tim Bale.

"It would need to be exciting enough - and big enough and sexy enough - to convince people."

A charismatic leader, without too much baggage (sorry, Tony) is a must.

And timing would be everything.If the launch is too far from the next general election, the shine could come off and the whole enterprise come crashing to the ground before anyone gets a chance to vote for it, says Prof Bale.

The disappointing performance of the Lib Dems at the general election suggests a new party would need to have a broader policy agenda than just being against Brexit, he adds.

"It still seems to me to be unlikely.But we do live in interesting times so I wouldn't rule anything out."...

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Tony Blair says EU could compromise on freedom of movement


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionTony Blair:"One option...would be Britain staying within a reformed European Union"

Some EU leaders may be prepared to compromise on the free movement of people to help Britain stay in the single market, Tony Blair has said.

He told the Today programme one option was for Britain "staying within a reformed EU".

The ex-PM said he would not disclose conversations he had had in Europe - but insisted he was not speaking "on a whim".

The government insists Brexit will give the UK greater control of its borders.

Labour's shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said Mr Blair "hadn't really listened to the nature of the debate going on in the pubs, the clubs and school gates".

"We have to respect the referendum result," Mr McDonnell said, adding that Labour could "negotiate access to the single market".

EU 'circles'

Mr Blair spoke to the BBC after he argued in an article for his own institute that there was room for compromise on free movement of people.

He told Today the situation in Europe was different to when Britain voted to leave the EU - a move Mr Blair described as "the most serious it's taken since the Second World War".

He said France's new president, Emmanuel Macron - whose political party was formed last year - was proposing "far-reaching reforms" for the EU.

"Europe itself is now looking at its own reform programme," Mr Blair said.

"They will have an inner circle in the EU that will be part of the eurozone and an outer circle."

When pressed on what evidence there was to suggest European nations would compromise, Mr Blair said:"I'm not going to disclose conversations I've had within Europe, but I'm not saying this literally on the basis of a whim.

"They will make reforms that I think will make it much more comfortable for Britain to fit itself in that outer circle."

He said "majorities" of people in France, Germany and the UK supported changes around benefits and with regards to those who come to Europe without a job.

"I'm not saying these could be negotiated," Mr Blair said.

"I'm simply saying if we were looking at this from the point of view of the interests of the country, one option within this negotiation would be Britain staying within a reformed European Union."

He said the majority of EU migrants in the UK are "people we want in this country".

EU leaders have previously said the UK must accept free movement of people if it wants to stay inside the single market.

But in his article for the Institute for Global Change[3], Mr Blair said senior figures had told him they were willing to consider changes to one of the key principles of the single market.

"The French and Germans share some of the British worries, notably around immigration, and would compromise on freedom of movement," he wrote.

But last week the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital - the key principles of the single market - were "indivisible".

Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to control EU migration and has reiterated her commitment to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands.

She has said that outside the single market, and without rules on freedom of movement, the UK will be able to make its own decisions on immigration.

Corbyn's position

Mr Blair also said more was known now about the effects of the Brexit process on the UK.

"We know our currency is down significantly, that's a prediction by the international markets as to our future prosperity.We know businesses are already moving jobs out of the country.

"We know last year we were the fastest-growing economy in the G7.We're now the slowest."

Mr Blair accepted Labour was behind its leader Jeremy Corbyn "for now".

But he warned if Brexit was combined with leaving the single market, and "the largest spending programme Labour had ever proposed" the country "would be in a very serious situation."


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionJeremy Corbyn:"I hope he (Tony Blair) has looked very carefully at our manifesto"

Mr Blair said leaving the single market was a "damaging position" shared by Labour and he urged the party's leadership to champion a "radically distinct" position on Europe.

But Jeremy Corbyn said Labour's position on free movement was "very clear", adding:"We would protect EU nationals' rights to remain here, including the rights of family reunion."

Responding to Mr Blair's comments, the party leader said:"I think our economy will do very well under a Labour government.

"It will be an investment-led economy that works for all - so we won't have zero-hour contracts, insecure employment.

"We won't have communities being left behind."

'Out of touch'

Mr Blair has previously said Brexit was an issue he felt so strongly about, that it tempted him to return to politics.

But Labour MP Frank Field, who backed Brexit, said he did not think Mr Blair was "a person to influence public opinion now".

"We're now set on the course of leaving [the EU].We actually need a safe harbour to continue those negotiations when we're out.

"And I wouldn't actually be believing those people who are set on destroying our attempts to leave, who are now appearing as wolves in sheep's clothing."

Richard Tice, of pro-Brexit group Leave Means Leave, said Mr Blair's comments "demonstrate how out of touch he is with British voters".

"The former prime minister believes that freedom of movement is the only issue with the EU, when in reality the British people also voted to leave in order to take back control of our laws and money and no longer be dictated to by the European Court of Justice," he added.

Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman said Mr Blair's assertion that Britain could find a way to remain within a reformed EU was a "dodgy claim, as opposed to a dodgy dossier".

"We've heard this all before.David Cameron was given such assurances and in the end the EU did nothing for him.

"If they do nothing for Cameron, they're not going to do anything for Blair, I'm afraid."...

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Home Office fined £366,900 for breaking pay cap for abuse inquiry chief

Professor Alexis JayImage copyright PA Image caption Professor Jay was a panel member before being named chair

The Home Office has been fined £366,900 for breaching the government's senior salary pay cap when it appointed the head of a child sex abuse inquiry.

It was penalised by the Treasury for failing to get clearance in advance before agreeing to pay Professor Alexis Jay £185,000 a year.

Since 2010, all jobs with salaries of more than £142,500 agreed by ministers have had to be signed off in advance.

The Home Office said it had reviewed procedures to avoid future breaches.

Prof Jay became the fourth chair of the troubled inquiry after replacing Lowell Goddard in August 2016.

The fine also relates to the pay of the inquiry's three panel members one of whom, Drusilla Sharpling, received a basic salary of £152,424 in 2015-6.

On becoming chancellor in 2010, George Osborne ruled that public servants directly appointed by ministers should not be paid more than then Prime Minister David Cameron - who was earning £142,500 at the time - unless they were approved by the Treasury.

It was part of an austerity drive which saw the pay of ministers cut by 5% and then frozen for five years.

Prof Jay was named as chair by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at short notice in August 2016.Her predecessor, a leading New Zealand judge, resigned suddenly following criticism of her conduct of the troubled inquiry.

The inquiry is investigating historical allegations of sex abuse[1] against local authorities, religious organisations, the armed forces and public and private institutions - as well as people in the public eye - spanning decades.

The leading academic and child protection expert was already a panel member, working in that capacity alongside Ms Sharpling, barrister Ivor Frank and academic Professor Malcolm Evans.

'Retrospective approval'

Details of the "exemplary fine" emerged in the Home Office's accounts[2] for the past financial year.

A Home Office spokesman said the department had been punished for having to secure "retrospective approval" for Prof Jay's salary when she became chair as well as the remuneration of other panel members agreed when the inquiry was set up in 2015.

"The Treasury has the power to consider fines for departments who breach agreed spending control processes, including those relating to senior salary approval," it said.

"The Home Office have since reviewed appointment procedures to prevent further such breaches."

Image copyright Reuters Image caption The fine does not relate to Dame Lowell Goddard's remuneration

The Home Office said Prof Jay had been appointed swiftly in order to minimise disruption to the inquiry and this meant getting sign-off for her salary "in parallel" with her appointment - which was subsequently approved.

According to the inquiry's accounts,[3] Prof Jay was paid £118,360 for the period from 18 August 2016 to 31 March 2017.She also received an £27,478 accommodation allowance and expenses of £2,281.

She also received £34,465 for her work as a panel member during the first four months of the financial year before becoming its chair.

The accounts show Ms Sharpling was paid £152,285 in 2015-6, rising to £154,423 in 2016-7.The inquiry has agreed to subsidise 80% of what she was earning in her previous capacity as Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary.

Over the same period, Prof Evans was paid £65,540 while Mr Frank received £96,332,50.In the past financial year, these salaries - which are set at a fixed rate of £565 a day - rose to £76,840 and £138,990 retrospectively.

The Home Office stressed the fine did not relate to Dame Lowell Goddard's remuneration arrangements, which were heavily criticised during her 16 months in the post, but for which officials said "all the necessary approvals" had been granted.

In 2015-6, she was paid £355,000 and received an accommodation and utilities allowance worth £119,207.She also received £29,156 in relocation costs and £75,246 in travel costs including the cost of air fares between the UK and New Zealand.

She was paid £123,871 for the period between 1 April and her resignation on 4 August 2016 while her allowances and expenses for the period totalled more than £80,000.

The inquiry has been beset by problems since its inception with its first two chairs, Lady Butler-Sloss and Dame Fiona Woolf, stepping down before beginning their work.The inquiry's chief lawyer, Ben Emmerson, resigned last year but Prof Jay has insisted it is continuing with its work....

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Reality Check: Can Scotland and Wales block the repeal bill?

Quote from first ministers saying: The bill... is a naked power-grab, an attack on the founding principles of devolution

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, known as the repeal bill, will convert EU laws into UK laws.Some of these will be in areas such as the environment and agriculture, which are normally the responsibility of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones, have described the bill as a "naked power-grab" that undermines devolution.But do they have the power to block it?

The UK government says it will negotiate with the devolved governments and attempt to seek consensus.Ultimately, though, the bill could pass even without the agreement of Scotland and Wales, but not without the potential for severe political consequences.

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland transfers the power to make laws in some policy areas from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly.

But there are times when the UK Parliament still legislates in these areas.The Sewel Convention states that when it does so, it should normally seek the consent of the devolved legislature.

And the convention is just that, a political convention, not a legally enforceable rule.

It is named after Lord Sewel, who first set it out when the Scottish Parliament was established.

A system was established whereby the UK government seeks a "legislative consent motion" from the devolved legislatures when it passes laws on devolved matters.

Image caption Scottish Parliament (left) and Welsh Assembly (right)

The convention was written into a memorandum of understanding between the UK and devolved governments in 2001.

It states:"The UK government will proceed in accordance with the convention that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters, except with the agreement of the devolved legislature."

The memorandum was intended as a political agreement not a legally binding code.And the word "normally" implies it is not absolutely essential for Westminster to seek consent.

The convention as it applies to Scotland and Wales has recently been written into law.

The Scotland Act 1998 said the power of the Scottish Parliament to make laws "does not affect the power of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland".However, the Scotland Act 2016 inserted an extra clause saying that Westminster:"will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament".

A similar clause for Wales was included in the Wales Act 2017.

There has been no such Act of Parliament for Northern Ireland, but the convention still applies there.

Brexit legal challenge

Despite the new statutory basis, the Sewel Convention does not give the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly an absolute veto.

That was determined by the Supreme Court in its judgement[3] in the case brought by Gina Miller about the triggering of Article 50, which started the Brexit process.

The Supreme Court found that the new clauses do not mean that the Sewel Convention has been converted into a legally enforceable rule.It remains a political convention - albeit one which is recognised as a permanent feature of devolution.

The devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales do not have the legal power to block the repeal bill.But if the UK government were to bulldoze it through without their consent, it could be politically explosive.

It may just be a convention but it is regarded by many as a key aspect of the devolution settlement and an important part of the UK's constitution.

Read more from Reality Check[4]

Follow us on Twitter[5]...


  1. ^ What is the repeal bill all about? (www.bbc.co.uk)
  2. ^ Brexit:All you need to to know (www.bbc.co.uk)
  3. ^ Supreme Court in its judgement (www.supremecourt.uk)
  4. ^ Read more from Reality Check (www.bbc.co.uk)
  5. ^ Follow us on Twitter (twitter.com)

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