The Independent Group of MPs have given themselves a label and a logo, but in terms of parliamentary rules this is irrelevant. Technically, the 11 MPs – eight formerly of Labour and three ex-Conservative – are currently sitting as independents. This means that on Parliament’s website they are not distinguished from the five other independent MPs who resigned earlier from their parties for other reasons, and who are not affiliated with the group.
The choice to sit as a self-defined bloc of independents, rather than as a party, reflects political reality. At the moment, members of the group are united as much by what they oppose as what they agree upon. Prematurely converting into a party might discourage other MPs from joining the group. But if they do, or if they continue as an informal grouping, how would this affect their ability to take advantage of party benefits in Commons procedures?
One right that is clearly defined is access to public funding. Even if the Independent Group become a political party it would not benefit from Short Money – funding to help opposition parties fulfil their constitutional role. This is allocated to parties only if they meet certain criteria, which include having been a party that contested the last election.
Nor would the Independent Group – even if it gained significantly more members and became a party – gain any control over time in the Commons. The main Opposition party is allotted 17 days’ worth of time each parliamentary session, and the second largest opposition party is given three days. But the Standing Orders define the second-largest opposition party specifically as the non-government party which has “the second largest number of members elected to the House as members of that party”. Because a new party’s MPs would have been elected under the banner of other parties at the last election, it seems it would not be allocated Opposition time – even if it overtook the SNP and its 35 MPs to become the second largest opposition party.
Likewise, a new party would not gain additional representation on select committees in this Parliament. The party political distribution of committee chairs and members is determined at the beginning of each Parliament and does not shift to reflect changes in the parties during the course of it. Some of the Independent Group currently sit on committees, and Sarah Wollaston was elected by the whole House at the start of the 2017 Parliament to chair the Health and Social Care Committee. These MPs are unlikely to lose their seats or chairs – Frank Field MP, who resigned from the Labour Party, set a relevant precedent by continuing to chair the Work and Pensions Committee as an independent MP. Sarah Wollaston is also the chair of the Liasion Committee, and it is possible, though it seems unlikely, that the other select committee chairs who elected her could now attempt to unseat her.
A new party would even struggle to exert influence through the ad hoc committees set up to scrutinise primary and secondary legislation. The membership of these legislative committees is meant to reflect the party balance of the Commons as a whole, and members are chosen by the Selection Committee – which the new party would not have representation on – before being agreed by the whole House. Independent MPs have previously relied on the SNP – which represents minor parties on the Selection Committee – donating their places on these committees. The SNP may choose to donate a seat to MPs from a new party but there is no guarantee.
The Speaker will be conscious of this new group’s existence when inviting MPs to speak in a debate, or when choosing amendments to bills or motions. The Speaker also plays a role in calling party leaders to ask supplementary questions at PMQs – how he interprets the new group and how big they become could prove crucial. In making these decisions, the Speaker will always consider a wide range of factors – including ensuring that different viewpoints on an issue are heard.
For now, the Independent Group remains an informal bloc. As time goes on, these MPs will face various challenges in how they structure and organise themselves. But unless and until they become a party and win seats in an election they will not benefit from the full-range of rules designed to balance the influence of political parties in Parliament.