Who will capture the centre ground?

Published by The i paper (3rd April, 2017)

British politics is in a curious place. A prime minister who is respected but still little-known leads a government with a minuscule majority. For all her fine words upon entering office, she is doing little on the domestic front beyond grappling with Brexit – the biggest test facing this country since the Second World War. She has staked Britain’s future on the desire to cut immigration and seems driven by a determination to head off the insatiable hard-right. Yet even when ministers admit they may fail to reduce migration, there is minimal fuss and she floats high in the polls.

Theresa May is both lucky and unlucky. She is lucky to have strolled into Downing Street when the opposition is in such a mess. Labour’s leader is an absurdist joke and the party has, to its eternal shame, largely abrogated its duty to resist Brexit. The Liberal Democrats often say the right things but no one wants to listen, given their recent history. Ukip is led by a fantasist and has descended into long-running farce. Only the Scottish Nationalists challenge Conservative hegemony – yet their focus is separation from Westminster.

Yet May is unlucky to have become prime minister in the wake of that damaging, divisive and self-defeating referendum. She wants to be a social reformer and reduce inequality, but she knows only one issue matters at this point in British history. Even in the unlikely event of a harmonious Brexit, few people will be satisfied – and it will solve none of the underlying issues that provoked the breach. Far more likely is a bitterly contested “dirty” Brexit that causes widespread dislocation, dismays most people, achieves nothing positive and weakens the nation.

I have been in Malta for the European Union response to the triggering of Article 50, which coincided with a massive meeting of the continent’s centre-right parties. There was genuine sadness over the impending departure of a close and important ally. Yet, if there was one point of unanimity, it was that while our move will hurt all member states, we will be the biggest loser. As Antonio Tajani, an affable Italian who has just become president of the European Parliament, put it: ‘The British must lose the most.’ Otherwise, membership of the community is pointless.

While arrogant Eurosceptics claim Brexit is no big deal since we hold all the cards, 27 other countries intend to prove otherwise. This makes the lack of opposition especially dispiriting. Like so many things, governance is improved by competition, especially in times of disruptive stress. For all this, it seems strange there is such a widely held belief that the Tories are in power for a decade at least. The pound has fallen, prices are rising, politicians look ever more fallible – but, given Labour’s meltdown, almost everyone thinks May has won the next election already.

Britain, though, is due to leave the EU in March 2019 – a two-year timescale deliberately set tight to deter any country from being foolish enough to extricate itself from Brussels. And this is barely a year before the next general election. In normal political times, everything would be in play.

Polls, history and electoral realities define this defeatism among May’s foes. The left is still haunted by the legacy of its last split in the early 1980s. Yet the Social Democratic Party took more votes than Labour did from the Tories and saved the party by dragging it back to the centre. And these are different days: the party’s plight is much deeper and its leader more hopeless; the unions are in hard-left hands; Labour’s tribal loyalties are breaking down; and technology is changing both media and politics. Also, this time it is a majority of MPs who might, should they display backbone for once, leave a rump party to the militants and move to a new centrist force.

Lib Dem membership is soaring – bigger than at the height of Cleggmania – yet Tim Farron is far from a populist national saviour. Meanwhile, the corrosive poison of Brexit courses also through the Tories, even if most moderate MPs have put loyalty to their careers before loyalty to their country.  Among Remainers there is a well of anger waiting to be tapped – and if the break goes badly, their sense of righteous outrage will grow.

These voters, remember, are more likely to be younger, richer and better educated than the old guard of Brexiteers. These are the same sort of people fuelling the rise in France of Emmanuel Macron, who looks increasingly likely to capture the Elysée with his newly created En Marche! party. Yes, he is lucky also, since his path to the presidency was opened up by floundering rivals. Yet Macron shows populism can be a centrist force, not just a nasty nationalist one – and it is not just the chattering classes who seek such politics. Win or lose, he proves the potency of revived economic and social liberalism in this current regressive climate, especially if harnessed to modern campaigning.

Our mainstream political parties are wide coalitions, long filled with factions that rub along in return for power. But with their ranks of robotic politicians spouting tribal lines, they look outmoded in this age of consumerism, social media and transparency. Perhaps they will hold together and normal service will resume again soon at Westminster; it is, after all, always easier to make excuses than take brave action. But perhaps not. Certainly, for all the current whispers, the likes of Blair, Clegg and Osborne would be the worst possible people to promote something new and idealistic. But May’s grip on power is weaker than is perceived. Could Brexit shake up politics just as much as it will shake up our nation?

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