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“Centrism” is nothing of the kind

A small elite out of touch with the British people do not represent the sensible middle ground

Artillery Row

Reshuffles tend to fuel the worst form of political journalism. Gossip, obsession over personalities, simplistic explanations, wild speculation and attempts to force a narrative abound as the dust clears. Has someone’s leadership challenge been nipped in the bud? Has the Prime Minister lost grip, or has he successfully re-asserted it? Perhaps most importantly of all, does this represent a change in policy direction?

Narrative could become a reality, with our elected leaders dancing to the tune

Commentators revert to crude categories in the endless quest to find a new angle. Often, these takes simply reflect the world the media establishment would prefer to exist, rather than the world as it really is: the so-called “lurch to the right” has been called off with Suella Braveman’s sacking; the “adults” — in this case, “daddy” — are back with David Cameron’s appointment; this is a return to sensible, centrist government. One “Tory strategist” briefed that any attempt to retain the Red Wall has been cancelled in favour of shoring up the southern heartland vote, adding fuel to the idea there has been a major pivot. Former Tory leader Lord Hague has gone further, labelling the reshuffle a victory for the Cameroons over the Vote Leave insurgency.

This may reflect an attempt at world-building by the bards of the commentariat more than an underlying change of philosophy inside Number 10. Either way, the Government must tread carefully. Even if a liberal turn is not part of the strategy, this narrative could all too quickly become a reality, with our elected leaders subconsciously dancing to the tune. One thing must be remembered: whatever the rights and wrongs of the former Home Secretary’s actions and performance, she expressed many views and values that are popular with the electorate, their views on her actual dismissal notwithstanding.

The public really do care about lowering net migration and stopping illegal crossings. As polling by Onward has shown, admitting more asylum claimants is one of the least popular policies a Conservative government could adopt. Some 61 per cent of voters believe net migration has been too high — a four point increase from 2019, reflective of a broad, multi-year trend. If the Government loses the Supreme Court case on the Rwanda migration plan this week, its response will be crucial for showing its commitment to upholding the border and its seriousness about voters’ concerns.

Suella Braverman’s approach to handling the Palestine Solidarity Campaign protests, which dominated central London for a fifth weekend on Armistice Day, may have been wanting — it’s the Home Secretary’s job to act, not to comment. Nonetheless, her view that the protests have now gone far beyond the limits of reasonableness is one the public broadly shares, with half of voters saying the demonstrations should be banned. Downing Street must separate the Braverman decision from its stance on those vocally expressing anti-Semitism and support for Hamas in ways that have repeatedly breached the Terrorism Act. There is a risk the former Home Secretary becomes a scalp for Islamists and their progressive enablers. A more indulgent approach towards the protests would be neither right nor popular.

The return of David Cameron is perhaps the move most open to symbolic over-interpretation. Downing Street is keen to show its moral seriousness about governing by bringing in a respected elder statesman and to show the public their operation is — unlike the short-lived Truss disaster that went before it — grown-up. There is some logic to this.

Cameron was and is a more complex figure than media bubble imaginings

Again, however, the narrative that we either want or need a “Cameroon” pivot must be resisted. First, Cameron was and is a more complex figure than the liberal “centrist dad” of media bubble imaginings. The robust response of the Coalition government to the 2011 London riots — which really does put the Met’s handling of recent lawlessness to shame — was not that of a “wet” administration. Cameron’s public commitment to bringing net migration down to the “tens of thousands”, whilst never delivered, went well beyond anything this post-Brexit government has committed to. Cameron campaigned to replace the Human Rights Act with a domestic alternative, and his implementation of the Marriage Tax Allowance displayed some of his more socially conservative instincts.

More important than Cameron himself is the way the political commentariat is seeking to depict Cameroon policy. Whilst George Osborne’s stint as Chancellor may continue to be written up as part of a wider “centrist” project of Tory modernisation, in reality, it was anything but. The swingeing cuts to public spending undoubtedly hollowed out state capacity, and the impact of cuts to capital investment remains with us through structurally lower growth.

As polling by Onward has consistently shown, the general public does not support a state-slashing, tax-cutting economic agenda. Neither are they supportive of “wet Tory” social liberalism on immigration, crime and culture. The “centre ground” of SW1 is no such thing in the country. The electorate — including target Conservative voters — are consistently to the left of Tory MPs on issues of tax and spend, but consistently to the right on social issues. As the Economist’s Bagehot column argues this week, the Cameron project only succeeded (and by the narrowest of margins) despite its platform of austerity and liberalism, not because of it.

False assumptions about the values of southern Tory voters should also be resisted. Tory strategists will be tempted to abandon 2019 swing seats and focus on damage mitigation via a “southern strategy”. Though more affluent southern voters may have, on average, backed Cameron and not Johnson over Brexit, their underlying priorities are not that different from their co-voters in the North and Midlands. Like Tories in the Red Wall, they favour slightly more intervention in the economy and proper funding for public services, whilst sitting to the right of most MPs on immigration, crime and culture.

The popular media definition of “centrism” should be exposed as the mirage it is. It reflects the desire of a small, influential class for a return to a social and economic liberalism. For this there is neither public support nor, given the 2019 Tory manifesto, a democratic mandate. If conservatism is to survive, it must reflect the views and needs of the average voter, not a media reconstruction of a lost Cameroon cause.

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