Heidi Allen revealed yesterday that the Independent Group have decided not to take any action that would precipitate a general election - an extraordinary public position for a small group seeking to exercise influence in a hung parliament, because if you want to win concessions from the government you need at least some measure of threat, even if you know privately you'd never see the threat through.
The Independent newspaper interpreted Allen's words as meaning that the Independent Group will "back Theresa May" on any no confidence motion. I suspect that's not quite right - I presume their plan would be to abstain, because it would be a dreadful look for the eight Labour defectors to be immediately voting to prop up the Tories. But the practical effect of abstentions will be exactly the same as voting with the government - it gives May a slender DUP-proof majority, and means that a general election can only now happen in the foreseeable future if May or her successor as Tory leader decides to call one in search of a more decisive mandate. That's far from impossible, as we know from recent experience, but it's still reasonable to conclude that the chances of an early election are now somewhat lower than they were before the breakaway. The only thing that might change that calculation would be if there's yet another breakaway, this time from the Tory right, although that will probably only happen if May softens her stance on Brexit in a way that nobody really expects her to do at the moment.
Would there be anything good about this parliament trundling on for another two or three years? Well, at least it would secure the SNP's position as the majority party in terms of Scottish seats at Westminster. At the moment, polls suggest that the SNP would make a few net gains in any snap election, mostly from Labour, but in the 2017 election campaign we saw how quickly things can turn around. The arithmetic is scarily tight in a lot of SNP-held seats, so if anything went wrong during the campaign, the outcome could be disastrous. There's also the point that 35 SNP MPs might actually have more influence in a hung parliament than 40 SNP MPs would have in a post-election parliament with a Tory majority. I know we haven't seen much sign of SNP influence over the last two years, but that might change if there are a few more Tory defections, because that would mean May or her successor can no longer cobble together a majority with the DUP alone.
On the whole, though, I've been hoping for an early election, if only because of the SNP's own hesitancy about getting on with an independence referendum. Psychologically, they might feel more ready to take a risk (and an indyref will always be a risk whenever it's held) if they've got firmly onto the front foot by gaining seats in the most recent election to be held. There's still some sort of chance of a European Parliament election being held in the UK in May, and that could be the best available substitute for a snap general election, although what worries me is that the SNP have repeatedly underperformed in European elections since proportional representation was introduced in 1999 (probably because the voting system has encouraged SNP voters to drift off to smaller parties). But who knows, past history is no guide to future performance, and this would be a very different type of European election campaign from any that have been seen before.
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Last night, Opinium became the first pollster to produce a Britain-wide poll featuring the Independent Group on the standard voting intention question, as opposed to asking a convoluted hypothetical question about how people would vote if the Independent Group stood. As could probably have been anticipated, the results are less favourable for the Independent Group than the hypothetical polls have been, although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still taking a big hit, while the Tories are mysteriously unscathed after the onslaught from Soubry and co -
Conservatives 40% (+3)
Labour 32% (-5)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Independent Group 6% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-3)
SNP 4% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Plaid Cymru 1% (+1)
So it looks like Chuka shouldn't start measuring up curtains for 10 Downing Street just yet. The Independent Group are going to need a lot more critical mass if they're to get anywhere (indeed if they're to have any chance of holding onto even a handful of their current seats), and just for the time being the defections seem to have ground to a halt.
Incidentally, just as a matter of principle I think Opinium have made a mistake by including the Independent Group as a standard option. The defectors have been quite explicit that for now they are not setting up a political party and that they are not standing candidates. That will probably change, but I believe I'm right in saying that the SDP were not included in polls until they had formally launched as a fully-fledged party. If I was in the Labour party, I'd be extremely annoyed with Opinium for taking a premature decision that will artificially deflate the reported Labour vote. It's also a bit odd that Opinium are including the Independent Group but not Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, which is a registered political party, and already has a bigger contingent than UKIP in the European Parliament.
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For what little it's worth, the very small Scottish subsample from last night's GB-wide poll from Deltapoll suggested that the SNP's lead increases when the Independent Group are offered as a hypothetical option...
Without the Independent Group:
SNP 41%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 26%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 2%
With the Independent Group:
SNP 45%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 13%, Independent Group 9%, UKIP 2%, Liberal Democrats 2%