Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Cardwell is loyal to May and Brokenshire, but does not tell us much about Johnson’s people

28 Nov

The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell

When Peter Cardwell applied to Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s right-hand woman and in the summer of 2016 suddenly one of the most powerful people in Downing Street, to see if he could become a Special Adviser, he claims he possessed “perhaps the most crucial quality – shamelessness”.

He is wrong about that. Hill took him on, and over the next three and a half years he worked as a SpAd for four different Cabinet ministers, before being summoned to Downing Street in February of this year to be “formally sacked” by the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who told him: “The Prime Minister no long has confidence in your ability to do your job.”

Cardwell reflects that Boris Johnson is probably “only vaguely aware of my existence”. He is amused that Robbie Gibb, Director of Communications during May’s last two years in office, had not many months before denounced a SpAd who had caused grave annoyance in Number Ten:

“Someone who didn’t play the game. Someone who didn’t stick to the grid. Someone who didn’t keep us informed. Someone who will never set foot in this building again: Lee Cain.”

Since this book was written, Cain has once more left the building, and whether he will ever again set foot there cannot be known.

The reason why Cardwell cannot be called shameless is that he remains loyal to the losing side. He is from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom where loyalty is a highly esteemed virtue.

Only on page 188 does he confirm that he is a Unionist, who has usually supported the Ulster Unionist Party, now eclipsed (though he does not mention this) by the Democratic Unionists.

Here is Cardwell after Theresa May has wished him “Happy birthday” during the 2017 general election campaign:

“It was a fun moment with a lovely woman, a true public servant and someone who I believe was an excellent Prime Minister despite very trying circumstances.”

The sentiment is admirably unfashionable, but the tone is almost that of John Major. Cardwell has a gaucheness which prevents him from being a good writer. He is, however, a good friend, and forms a particular bond with James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister for whom he works at the Northern Ireland Office and later at Housing.

Before become a SpAd, Cardwell had spent ten years in broadcast journalism, where at one point Hill offered him Brokenshire as a guest on Newsnight:

“I have a terrible, terrible confession to make… I rejected the offer because I had never heard of him.”

There is nothing terrible about this admission. Cardwell was right to reject Brokenshire as a guest, because Brokenshire is an astoundingly dull performer.

But once he is Brokenshire’s media SpAd, Cardwell becomes “very prickly” about attacks on his boss:

“The press can be merciless, with one particularly poisonous description of James when he was Northern Ireland Secretary suggesting he had ‘the personality of a motorway service station car park’. Ouch.

“The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter Quentin Letts was especially horrible about James. I will not repeat some of the nasty things he wrote in the Mail, but he tweeted in early 2017, ‘Secretary of State James Brokenshire in Northern Ireland today: not so much a statesman as an ink monitor’.”

By early 2019, “for Mayites such as James and me it was bleak”. In the summer of that year, Brokenshire arrives at a decision about the way ahead:

“James, after a lot of thinking and having consulted his three SpAds, had backed Boris for Conservative leader early in the campaign and wrote an excellent op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, although they published only extracts of it, which annoyed  me greatly. To me, it needed to feel like a ‘moment’ when such a May loyalist backed Boris Johnson, and James’s drafted words, which he had sent me to review, were characteristically sincere.”

On become Prime Minister, Johnson sacked Brokenshire, but told him people did sometimes come back into government. In the reshuffle of February 2020, Brokenshire duly came back as Security Minister at the Home Office, so outside the Cabinet.

There is a faint echo in all this of Ferdinand Mount’s defence, in Cold Cream, of Selwyn Lloyd:

“He was used to being patronised. He didn’t care. He was proud of the things he was patronised for being.

“His loyalty was what he was most praised for, but this too was a form of condescension from those who found loyalty a quality of limited value in their own lives. He was loyal to Anthony Eden and never expressed any resentment that he had been led into a course of deceit by that vain, hysterical, serious-minded prima donna (can you be a serious-minded prima donna? Yes, I think you can and Eden certainly was). A few months before Eden married his second wife, the cool and witty Clarissa Churchill, Selwyn had been a guest at a house party given by John Wyndham at Petworth, which included Clarissa. He had been horrified by the way everyone present had said how ghastly Eden was, while Selwyn stuck up loyally for his boss. When the engagement was announced, the others desperately tried to cover their tracks, but Selwyn had no malicious words to swallow,”

In the Tory leadership contest of 1963, Lloyd campaigned energetically and effectively for the surprise winner, Alec Douglas-Home, for he felt, in Mount’s words, that “Home was the only one of them whose judgement was not fatally poisoned by ambition”.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in some future leadership contest, Brokenshire the patronised and disregarded man of government will play a similar role.

If one were contemplating a career as a special adviser, and did not already know what to expect, it would be worth glancing at this book.

There is plenty here about frenetic dealings with the media: nothing much about policy, which at the Northern Ireland Office was in the hands of the vastly more experienced Jonathan Caine.

To say that this account reveals the “secret life” of special advisers is overdoing it. No great secrets are revealed. Most of what happens is trivial, without being particularly amusing.

One gains a sense of the transitoriness of the role of adviser, for as Cardwell says,

“SpAds are political mayflies, lasting on average less than two years in government… Apparently, at the time of my defenestration in February 2020 there were just ten of us, out of some 105 SpAds, who had more than two years’ experience. This was partly due to the fact that in the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, so many SpAds had left, taking with them much experience and expertise.”

This is an inexperienced government, which cast aside the knowledge of how Westminster and Whitehall work which had been accumulated by its predecessors.

On arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron was surrounded by a group of professionals who had acquired, like him, a mastery of technique in the Conservative Research Department – a point which escapes Cardwell in his brief and not very illuminating history of SpAds.

Johnson had no such group around him, pursued a daringly unconventional course and in December 2019 won a famous election victory. Cardwell hails Dominic Cummings as “a strategic genius”, but does not have much to say about how all this happened.

For Cardwell belongs to the May interlude, a period about which nothing brilliant has yet been published.