David Cameron has painted the political centre blue
When I sat down to watch the Prime Minister’s conference speech last week, I felt excited yet also somewhat apprehensive. Surely, with the astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn, things could not possibly get better for the Tories? To my delight, they did. In a daring political manoeuvre resplendent with verve and strategic insight, the Prime Minister veered the Party sharply to the centre, touching even towards the centre left. By emulating Tony Blair, albeit in the opposite direction, couching the policies of the Right in the social justice oriented language of the left, the Conservative Party has seized the political space in a way that will prove very difficult for a still stunned Labour to dislodge them from. In the imagery used by many a commentator, the Tory tanks haven’t just parked on the Left’s lawn – they’ve blown off the door and occupied the kitchen! The key to whether this is a sustainable trend now lies purely in whether they can implement their eclectic new program in letter as well as spirit.
In some respects this is ostensibly a surprising choice — the heart of the Tory Party has traditionally found itself beating on the right side of the political spectrum. Yet the realities of electoral politics dictate some basic trends which push and pull on all in the political world irrespective of ideology or affiliation. Firstly, the British people are not by definition fiercely ideological. They do not like going in directions that run contrary to what their instincts tell them are safe territory, especially from a macroeconomic perspective. I had predicted a Conservative majority back in April to much disbelief and against the trends of the polls. Swimming against the tide, I was proven right. To quote the Prime Minister: two words — exit poll! Secondly, that elusive centre of gravity where an aspirational government-in-waiting can hit the proverbial bulls-eye is, thanks to the success of Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies, further right than Labour traditionalists are readily comfortable with.
The proof of this lies in Mr Blair’s long struggle to modernise the Labour Party and make it electable again, essentially accepting nearly all of her economic precepts but with supposed empathy for the most vulnerable included. The long Conservative period in the wilderness in that era came from the notion that the Party did not speak to many key demographics — young people, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities or even middle class people who wanted a compassionate, infrequently social interventionist yet pro-market government. By holding the centre today Mr Cameron has just opened up the possibility of an almost reverse Blairism — a combination of pragmatic pro-market laissez-faire with a social interventionism that emphasises bottom-up empowerment that treats people at socio-economic disadvantage with respect.
Furthermore, because the British people veer away from radicalism does not mean they are anti-reform. Quite the contrary — well considered iterative reform in crucial areas such as education and public services can and arguably already are pulling Great Britain ahead into a new era of economic growth, while being politically rewarding. I never thought I would see the UK overtake Germany as an economic growth engine, yet this I exactly what is happening thanks to a Conservative led program of slow, considered and efficient reform. By making the Tories the vehicle of social reform, the government is effectively appealing to those with mild centre left sympathisers to join the project, so to speak. There is a long way to go, but the Conservatives under Cameron may just have found a way to entice moderate Labour supporters away from the wreckage of a non-credible Jeremy Corbyn led party.
The political rewards of such an approach are quite obvious. In 2015, the Tories won 330 seats with 37% of the vote. In 2020 the combination of boundary changes and the new broad church approach could lead to a Thatcherite 43% of the vote, swallowing up the Labour Party with a majority too big to be overturned inside a single electoral cycle- in other words, the Conservatives could be in charge until 2030. Of course, there are banana skins aplenty ahead. The European referendum could cause damaging splits. The upcoming tax credit cuts could prove toxic. Most of all, there is a leadership election and the winner may opt for one victorious election cycle from the Right, rather than several from the Centre-Left. However Conservatives are the natural party of power, and I suspect that instinct to power in the long run will ultimately cause Cameron’s successor to continue this ambitious path to political dominion. I can see the scepticism of many right and left. Tories copying Blair and winning from the Centre-Left? As the last election just showed impossible may well turn out to be merely improbable yet likely…