Centre-ground politics will appear a quaint notion from inside the labyrinth of EU exit, warns Philip Collins
Erdington’s most conspicuous landmark might yet become a metaphor for a government that loses the thread in a labyrinth. The prime minister’s co-chief of staff, Nick Timothy, set out in a series of articles, before they entered Downing Street, an approach to domestic policy that has been called, after his home town, ‘Erdington Conservatism’. When you leave Erdington for the journey to London it is not far down the road before you are snarled up in Spaghetti Junction. The government just might get into a jam like that.
‘Erdington Conservatism’, if granted a free run and sufficient political authority, would be an attempt to govern from the left flank of the Tory party, which is to say as close to the political centre as the party can get. It was Theresa May, remember, who began the process of Tory modernisation by declaring that the party was seen in the nation as ‘nasty’. She told her party conference in 2002 that the nation regarded the Conservative party as obsessed with material gain, too happy with privilege and too unsympathetic to the plight of the poor. She meant it then and it would be partisan not to note that she means it now. It is always comforting for Labour to ascribe ill intent to Tory opponents but it is rarely good politics to do so.
In this respect, the argument over grammar schools is misleading. The plan to permit new grammar schools is regrettable and it does, indeed, give the fractured Labour party an issue around which it can gather. It does not, however, herald a grand shift in government thinking to the political right. This is not how the May team see the policy at all. They point out, fairly, that the landscape of British schools is unrecognisably different from the 1950s. There will not be a return to a system-wide binary distinction between the sheep and the goats. Besides, the conditions that will be imposed on schools wishing to establish selective entry will be onerous enough to dissuade many from doing so. Most of the existing academy chains have declared no interest. In a land of 27,000 schools it is not likely that this meagre proposal will do much, either for good or ill.
May’s conference speech in Birmingham did contain more important clues. Her passage on corporate governance, state activity and industrial strategy are a better place to seek a defining purpose. She has interpreted the European Union referendum, with some justification, as just as much a howl of anguish at domestic policy that has not reached parts of Britain as it was a genuine plebiscite on Europe. May has signalled that she is quite prepared to use the power of the state to encourage enterprise. If that sounds as vague as it did when Ed Miliband said pretty much the same thing, that is because it is. Quite what this industrial strategy will mean in practice remains to be seen. The words do nothing on their own but they do show that May wants to be the champion of that category of people she describes as the ‘just managing’ which is a more precise definition of the old cliché ‘the hard-working family’.
It could easily all get lost, though. The government has a small and precarious majority. May seems intent on not calling a general election even though one would deliver her both a mandate and a huge victory. Meanwhile, her government is charged with the most complex event any prime minister has inherited in recent memory. In reported disputes between the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, the strain is beginning to show. May has said that she will begin the process by March of next year, which means the United Kingdom will have left the European Union by the time of the 2020 general election. Whether there will be any deal in place by then is quite a different question.
It is hard, even now when the EU is dominating British politics, to appreciate just how much the negotiation will dominate the sense that the public has of the government. All economic data will be interpreted with reference to the decision of 23 June 2016. The battle will be fought over and over by both sides in a constant war of attribution. The prime minister was widely congratulated for her chicanery in placing the European departments in the hands of the ‘Leave’ advocates, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. It was the sort of plan which looks better on the first day than any subsequent day.
When the hard negotiation comes, the prime minister will be in unavoidable charge. She will have to take back control from Messrs Johnson, Davis and Fox. It will eat up time and intellectual energy. It will define her government just as it defined her predecessor, whose reputation was shredded by it. In this context, the question of whether May can otherwise occupy the centre of politics will seem quaint. She will certainly try and, to the extent that this is an economic question, it will depend, in turn, on the impact that leaving the EU has on the British economy. Her general prejudice will be towards a kind of blue-collar Conservatism. If there is any money for tax cuts it will go to the lower-middle part of the income spectrum.
There may not be much money and therefore not much bounty to distribute. It will not matter much as long as the Labour party remains under the guidance (I use the word to mean the opposite of guidance) of Jeremy Corbyn. The idea of the political centre means simply that a Tory party indulging itself is too rightwing for Britain, and the same is true to the left for Labour. The party which can control its own activists is likely to win. If the Tories are seen as a little too rightwing, they will still occupy a position closer to the sweet spot than a Labour party which is seen as having gone on a trip out of the back of the wardrobe.
The American election this month is pitting the least popular candidate ever against the second least popular. The British general election of 2020 could be the same: a government lost down the dead-end passages of a labyrinth with no great set of achievements to its name opposed by a party which has vacated serious politics. In that circumstance the reward will go to the party that is at least trying.
Philip Collins is chief leader writer at the Times
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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