Former prime minister David Cameron has today thrown a hand grenade into the Tory war of succession. In an interview with the London Evening Standard, edited by Cameron’s former right-hand man, George Osborne, the self-stylised ‘heir to Blair’ rebukes the direction in which Theresa May has taken the Tory party. Says Cameron, “The Conservative Party only succeeds if it is a party of the future.”
Cameron’s critique of the current prime minister is remarkably similar to the analysis Tony Blair has offered on each of his successors as Labour leader. Both former prime ministers argue that modernisation, owning the future and fighting from the centre ground are the surest ways to win an election. Given the relative electoral success of each man, it is hard to disagree.
Over the weekend Tony Blair performed his remarkable trick of totally dominating the news agenda as he rode in to once again lament the direction taken by the Labour leadership, whilst at the same time arguing that Brexit could be stopped. Conspiracy theorists everywhere are no doubt speculating that there might have been an element of coordination in the last three days’ news coverage.
Nevertheless, both Cameron and Blair are figureheads for factions in their respective parties which have been marginalised. The Labour Party is firmly in the grip of the Corbynite left, while the Tory party, which Theresa May once said had earned a reputation as “nasty”, has reverted to type by pursuing a socially conservative, isolationist, pessimistic vision for the country.
So, what might follow next for Britain’s politically homeless centrists on either side of the left-right divide?
The prospect of a new, ‘centrist’ party remains incredibly remote. Blair himself has frequently talked down this notion. The British electoral system would make such a venture incredibly difficult. Moreover, for what would such a party actually stand? Centrism without roots in a broader political movement is vacuous, as Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats discovered to their high cost.
What the last few days of manoeuvring suggest is that a race to the centre is underway in both the Labour and Tory parties. At present, Tories hoping for a return to centrism in their own party have a giant advantage. Cameron is not a toxic figure in his own party and still commands loyalty in large parts of the parliamentary Conservative Party. Meanwhile, his lieutenant, George Osborne, is using the London Evening Standard as a loudspeaker for his personal brand of ‘liberal centrism’. The Tories are the largest party and their highly-regarded 2010 intake of MPs contains a number of ‘centrist’ MPs. The odds are in their favour.
As for Labour, the centrists have lost control of the party, perhaps for a generation. Every time Tony Blair speaks, he shores up Corbyn’s support base. It’s not his fault, in fairness. There seems to be nobody in the parliamentary Labour party able to take on the mantle of visionary, radical centrism. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of very fine Labour MPs, but visionary leaders with a sense of hardened realism are prized precisely because they are so rare.
Today Labour Vision has profiled the runners and riders in the Tory leadership race. Perhaps it is from this crowded field that the next ‘centrist’ prime minister will emerge. For the sake of social democracy, we had better hope that event never comes to pass.