» sdp ¦ What You Can Get Away With

From a comment on Lib Dem Voice:

It is my expectation that, when the Tory right seeks to exert their power and to remove Cameron as leader, that many would give serious consideration to leaving the Tory party and joining the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

To borrow a phrase: sadly, no.

I’ve been following and involved in British politics for at least two decades now, and one constant of that time has been confident predictions of imminent splits in one party or another. I’ve made quite a few of them myself, and it’s this long tradition of failed predictions that has taught me that large-scale party splits are an incredibly rare event in British politics. Even singular defections are pretty rare, and they increase in rarity with the seniority of the potential defectee – the most senior defectee in recent times would appear to be Shaun Woodward.

I think attitudes can be coloured – and particularly in the Liberal Democrats – in that we are in a period where there has been a comparatively recent major party split when the SDP formed in 1981. Rather than being a part of regular politics, though, that was an exceptional event, notable because large numbers of MPs and senior party figures (including former Cabinet members) left one party and formed another. Aside from the contortions over the National Government and Mosley’s New Party in 1931, the last time that had happened in British politics was Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists in 1888.

What tends to happen in British politics is that those disheartened by the direction of their party take one of two courses. They stay and fight, trying to bring the party back to the position it had before or they decide to give up on active politics altogether and find a new way to occupy their time. In terms of the contemporary Conservatives, one could see Ken Clarke as an example of the first and Michael Portillo as an example of the second – those who take the second option usually try the first one before moving on. They very rarely switch to another party, even one of their own creation.

It’s easy to say ‘that’ll definitely split the party’ but permanent large-scale splits are a very rare occurrence in British politics. What’s much more common is the losing of conviction and the withering away of the minority. You’re much more likely to see former rebels making documentaries than signing up for another party.

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