This week Mike Gapes, a Labour MP for almost three decades before leaving to co-found The Independent Group (later Change UK), re-joined the party. In a cliché-ridden piece for The Times, he wrote how it wasn’t he who had left Labour four years ago, despite contesting a general election against one of their candidates, but the party that had left him. Now, under new leadership, the dial has turned back. “The change in the past few years has been profound,” Gapes declared. “The way [Starmer] has returned Labour to its roots, with a strong, patriotic and pro-Nato position, has been very impressive.”
Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of Brexit. That should come as a surprise given that when he left the party Gapes vented his fury at a leadership “complicit” in its implementation. Indeed, Brexit was the central grievance that drove the creation of Change UK, in so much as it brought together disaffected parliamentarians from Labour and the Conservatives. When Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry joined the new group, they cited the government’s handling of the issue as their primary reason why.
Looking back, it is now close to impossible to make sense of what happened next. When he joined Change UK, the purported aim of which was to take on a perceived ‘hard’ Brexit, Gapes, alongside the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas, voted against compromises including a customs union with the EU, or membership of the single market. His new party pursued a maximalist ‘all or nothing’ strategy, as Labour would proceed to do under the direction of Starmer. Ultimately they ended up with nothing, and became handmaidens for the hardest Brexit of all.
For Keir Starmer none of this can be changed. On assuming his party’s leadership he suddenly realised that perceptions around Labour trying to stop Brexit (it did) were his party’s greatest obstacle in regaining Leave-voting seats it lost to the Tories in 2019. As a result he whipped his MPs to vote for Boris Johnson’s deal in late 2020, and will do likewise for Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal in the weeks ahead. Presumably this is the kind of change about which previous europhile Mike Gapes is so enthusiastic.
The duplicity on show throughout this whole charade is hard to comprehend. Leave a party because you care about Britain’s departure from the European Union, proceed to reject any form of compromise, and then applaud the subsequent leader who accepts the very policies which made you leave in the first place. Much of the electorate doesn’t trust politicians. Reading a timeline like that makes it hard to disagree.
On top of all this is the bizarre assertion that the likes of Gapes represent mainstream, modern Britain. This is a man who worked for the Labour Party his entire life until the age of 66. In his youth, he was a student organiser before proceeding to work at party headquarters for 15 years. He then joined the Commons in 1992. That figures like this — the dictionary definition of party apparatchiks — are presented to the public as ‘ordinary’ shows the extent of the problem.
The subtext to all of this is, of course, that none of these people ever cared about Brexit. Instead it was a tool, an opportunity to exert pressure and ultimately remove a party leader they disliked. It could be argued that that’s politics, but it contributed to a constitutional crisis from which the country is yet to recover.
To cap it off Gapes and Starmer, who welcomed his return on Twitter, seemingly equate opposition to antisemitism with support for private enterprise. This is a bizarre statement. If the economy is stuttering from crisis to crisis, it’s partly because Britain’s permanent political class is stuffed with non-entity cosplayers like Mike Gapes. That the likely next Prime Minister celebrated his return undermines his claims to political seriousness.