16 May 2021

Weekly briefing: A requiem for the centre ground

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Backlash and rebellion against the establishment consensus have become the prevailing themes of British politics. But have rumours of the death of the centre ground been exaggerated?

Dominic Cummings doesn’t think so. He tweeted that the very concept is a pundit fiction which “DOES NOT EXIST” (emphasis his). The Centre for Policy Studies’ Alex Morton has argued compellingly on these pages that the electorate now divides broadly into three blocs – urban progressives, comfortable shire dwellers and those from ordinary towns – and that the to get a majority a Party needs to win over two of them even if it means annoying the third. It’s clear that trying not to piss anyone off by being as bland as possible (hi Keir Starmer) doesn’t work. As Alan Lockey has written for CapX, who you stand for is as important in politics as what you stand for, and to stitch together a coalition of voters you need to know your demographic and show them you’re on their side.

But having employed this strategy to win the election, the Conservatives do have to govern for the whole United Kingdom. There are those who would like the Government to use its mandate to pursue radical reform, but the policies set out in this week’s Queen’s Speech suggest that it is not convinced. Many of the measures are utterly centre ground, like “increasing the safety and security of citizens” and no fewer than three animal welfare Bills, which are guaranteed to be popular with the sort of people who write to their MPs. There’s also continuity with previous administrations. The Environment Bill has been kicking around since 2018 and proposed measures on domestic abuse and online safety, among others, build on work started in the May years.

That’s not to say the Queen’s Speech was uncontroversial. Pet Tory projects like boundary reform and grammar schools have been jettisoned for the time being, there is little sign of a proper pro-growth agenda (and rather more signs of a newfound reliance on central intervention), while a welcome overhaul of planning regulations is likely to inflame home-owning NIMBYs. Voter ID will not please libertarians and what Henry Hill calls “wokescolds on campus” are unlikely to be endeared by plans to protect free speech in higher education.

This is a Government that feels it can dispense with the emollient ‘one-nation’ rhetoric of the Cameron era in favour of action: levelling up and getting it done. But just because it doesn’t use centrist language doesn’t mean it’s pursuing a radical Thatcherite agenda.

The real test for the Conservatives won’t be what niche interest groups they alienate, but what they actually achieve, both for their voters and for the country as a whole – and the vaccine rollout has proved they can deliver at scale. And the truth is that many of society’s biggest challenges won’t be solved by trying to please particular parts of the electorate. Fixing social care, modernising infrastructure and reducing carbon emissions will be difficult and at times unpopular. But the necessity of getting these policies right where other administrations have failed is surely one thing everybody can agree on.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of Capx