‘A new centrist pro-EU party can be a catalyst even if it flops’, Financial Times, 12 August 2017.

Journalists bemoaning the loss of yet another colleague to PR or the civil service sometimes talk about that hack-to-flak transformation as “going over to the dark side”. James Chapman, who in 2015 was persuaded by George Osborne to give up the political editorship of the maniacally Eurosceptic Daily Mail and become director of communications at the Treasury, might not have seen it that way initially.

But a short and (one assumes) unhappy post-referendum stint as chief of staff to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union seems to have persuaded him that the Tories have become the bad guys of British politics.

After quitting Whitehall, Mr Chapman has become an outspoken champion for the idea not only that the UK must pull back from Brexit but that doing so requires the formation of a brand new, pro-European, socially liberal, centrist party. So far this idea has lit up social media but failed to attract serious support, even from former prime minister Tony Blair, long rumoured to be flirting with such a démarche. At first glance, one can see why.

The Liberal Democrats, led by an unashamedly anti-Brexit heavyweight, Vince Cable, can argue that the country already has such a party. Conservatives hoping they can somehow achieve a soft Brexit — or at least a soft landing via a potentially infinite transition — cannot be seen to be tempted: otherwise they would lose what traction they still have. The same goes for those Labour MPs talking about cross-party working in order to avoid a hard Brexit.

Others, veterans of previous splits, are more vocally dismissive, with some of the liveliest and most powerful pooh-poohing coming from Lord (Andrew) Adonis. Writing in Progress, a safe haven for Labour’s embattled moderates, Adonis argues that the searing experience in the 1980s of the breakaway Social Democratic party, of which he was an early member, constitutes a dire warning rather than a shining example. Anyone toying with the idea of a new party dedicated, as Roy Jenkins, patron saint of pro-EU liberal social democracy, and founding member of the SDP once put it, to “breaking the mould” of British politics and, in so doing, stopping Brexit before it is too late, should beware.

Even in this era of voter volatility, the obstacles to success — atavistic tribal loyalties, an electoral system that punishes third parties, and limited support for cosmopolitan internationalism even among the majority of the electorate that sees itself as centrist — are every bit as forbidding as Lord Adonis says.

But what actually constitutes success? Clearly, the SDP failed in the sense of realising its founders’ hope that it would replace a Labour party chronically beholden to the trade unions and socialist nostalgia among activists and MPs.

But, by scaring the living daylights out of some of those trade unions, activists and MPs in the early years of its shortlived existence, it helped those who decided not to jump ship (and whose loyalty to Labour could not therefore be questioned) to win their party back to a more European, more moderate centre-left stance.

Likewise, the UK Independence party (that won far fewer defectors from the Conservatives than the SDP did from Labour, and never came close to matching its opinion poll highs) succeeded by persuading enough Tories, at both the top and the bottom of the party, that it presented such a threat on the right that Nigel Farage’s populist Euroscepticism would have to be aped rather than attacked. Ukip cannot now boast a single MP, but its job is done.

A new party, then, might well be a suicide mission — but one that succeeds by acting as a catalyst for change in its closest competitor. That change may not prove permanent or even that profound — think of it as a nudge rather than a nuclear explosion. At a tipping point, however, a nudge is sometimes all that is needed.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/530de0c6-7eae-11e7-ab01-a13271d1ee9c


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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