No disrespect to Stephen Bush, but something he said in all apparent seriousness in the New Statesman today made me laugh out loud. He suggested that the big target for the breakaway Independent Group is to reach 36 recruits, because that would mean overtaking the SNP as the third largest group in the Commons, giving them speaking rights at PMQs and "longrun implications for the amount of attention they receive from broadcasters". Gosh yes. If the precedent of the SNP is anything to go by, third-party status for the Independent Group would win them two invitations to appear on Question Time per year, plus their own stalker in an orange jacket. These are prizes worth fighting for.
Even at the upper end of the rumoured number of defections, it's hard to see the new group quite reaching 36, so there's no reason for the SNP to panic just yet. I suppose if they reached 25, they could theoretically form a marriage of convenience with the 11 Liberal Democrats to become the third-biggest group, but I suspect the Lib Dems would prefer to retain their independence for the time being. In the early 1980s, the attraction for the Liberals of going into an alliance with the Labour defectors to the SDP was summed up by a succinct exchange between Liberal leader David Steel and one of his colleagues -
"David, the SDP know nothing about doorstep campaigning."
"But they know about government."
That logic doesn't hold in the current situation, because thanks to the disastrous coalition of 2010-15 there is actually more ministerial experience among the Lib Dem parliamentary party than there is among the Gang of Seven. Vince Cable as a former Business Secretary easily outranks the insufferable Chris Leslie, who appears to have been the only one of the Independent Group to have reached full ministerial rank during the Blair/Brown years, and who never got anywhere near to Cabinet level. (As an amusing aside, Leslie claimed in his statement yesterday to have been a Labour member of parliament for "more than three decades". He was actually 16 years old three decades ago. No wonder he only lasted a few months as Shadow Chancellor, a position in which good mental arithmetic is presumably at something of a premium. The truth is that he became an MP for the first time 22 years ago, ousting the equally insufferable Sir Marcus Fox, and subsequently lost his seat in 2005, ironically due to the fading popularity of the Blairite centrism that he reckons people are crying out for. He then went on a chicken run and got back into parliament with a safe seat in 2010, but that means he's actually been an MP for a combined total of less than 17 years. Novice...)
We can also safely dismiss keen letter-writer Mike Smithson's characteristically eccentric notion that Caroline Lucas of the Greens will be throwing in her lot with the Independent Group. She agrees with them on Brexit, but on very little else.
Mehdi Hasan said on Twitter that the only question the Independent Group should be asked by the media is whether they will support a May-led Tory government or a Corbyn-led Labour government. That's not entirely fair, because the precedent of the SDP shows that it is possible for a breakway party of sufficient size to take the lead in national opinion polls. It happened for a sustained period in 1981-2, and if it hadn't been for the Falklands War, it's conceivable that the SDP would have succeeded in their aim of breaking the two-party system. But it looks like the Independent Group will need to build up a lot more critical mass if they are to have any chance of emulating their predecessor. A new Survation poll reveals that, in spite of voters having more sympathy for the splitters than for the Labour leadership, they generally stick with the established parties when offered a "new centrist party" as an option. Just 8% say they would vote for the new party, and it is the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour who suffer the most.
The poll brings home how difficult it's going to be for pollsters to work out how to deal with the new group. I would guess if there's a general election within the next few weeks, the Independent Group would only defend the seats they already hold, and perhaps put up candidates in a small number of other carefully targeted constituencies. Whereas if the election is more than a year away, they might by then have become a fully-fledged party with a full slate of candidates. So at what point will pollsters be justified in routinely offering them as an option in national polls? I'm not quite sure.