Though never a cohesive grouping within the House of Commons, moderate parliamentarians nonetheless played a significant role in this election, and undoubtedly suffered the worst. Of those who ran as independents—by choice or, in the case of some Conservative lawmakers who were purged from the party for opposing a no-deal Brexit, by force—none were able to hang on to their seats. Of those who defected from the Labour and Conservative parties to join the avowedly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, all were defeated.
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The absence of these moderate parliamentarians is more than just an indicator of this deeply polarizing and partisan bent in British politics today—that much was already abundantly clear. At its core, it raises questions about the future of Britain’s center ground and whether the country’s political system, which has long relied on single-party governance, can maintain it.
Despite this era of hyper-partisanship in British politics, moderate politicians still staked out a role for themselves in the House of Commons. While some proved instrumental in blocking Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to take Britain out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement, others fought to ensure that lawmakers had sufficient time to scrutinize and amend any Brexit deal that was put before them.
To be clear, this election was never about centrists. Rather, it was about the two traditional parties—the Conservatives and Labour—and their shifts toward their respective ends of the British political spectrum. While the Conservatives moved to the left on economic issues, such as rolling back austerity measures, they moved to the right on Brexit, seeking to make a sharp break between Britain and the European Union. Meanwhile, the Labour Party moved to the left with a radical economic agenda, all while attempting to straddle the middle on Brexit by advocating for a second referendum that would give voters the final say. As a result, those who traditionally inhabit the middle ground, or who otherwise differed with their party’s position on Brexit, were effectively left with two options: put up or shut up. Many did the former, either switching parties or opting to run as independents.
The odds were always going to be against the latter group in particular—unlike many of their rivals, they lacked the structural and financial backing of their former parties. David Gauke, the former Conservative minister who was among the 21 expelled lawmakers, banked on his name recognition (he has represented his constituency for more than a decade), high-profile endorsements, and clever social-media campaigns to get him over the line (in the end, none of that worked). Others relied on the support of tactical-voting campaigns, which urged voters to cast their ballots in favor of a candidate they wouldn’t ordinarily support in order to block another party from winning.