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Another day, another voice crying out in the wilderness that was once the richly biodiverse environment of the UK’s political centre. The latest belongs to David Miliband, once New Labour’s golden-boy foreign secretary, now in comfortable exile in New York. In an FT interview, he condemned Brexit as “a difficult and dangerous path”. Listening to those Blairite dropped consonants makes you wonder: where has the middle gone?
His brother Ed, the erstwhile Labour leader, joked on Monday that he could not have done a worse job than the current government unless he had created a “giant lava sinkhole”.
But there is a sinkhole, and it lies exactly where government and opposition used to skirmish for votes.
In response, an array of new parties and centrist movements have emerged. First, in ascending order of seriousness, are the disenfranchised of Twitter, including a journalist from the Economist and Brian Cox, the scientist and broadcaster. Both have mooted a party for sensible people — I paraphrase, but only slightly.
Then there are the “have-a-go heroes”. In middle-class Battersea, Chris Coghlan has founded Renew. In Kensington, Annabel Mullin has founded Advance to push for change in the borough that witnessed the horror of Grenfell Tower. Adam Knight, an angel investor who stood in the by-election in Witney, prompted by the resignation of former prime minister David Cameron, is said to be mulling “a new movement”. All three are anti-Brexit candidates who have stood unsuccessfully before.
Next up, a group of entrepreneurs with serious money to fund a new enterprise are clustered around Simon Franks, a former Labour donor. They hover in the background, are much discussed and are in touch with the “centrist dads” in the Liberal Democrats and on the moderate wing of Labour. But will they pounce? And what would be their electoral strategy in a country where first past the post makes even a successful national insurgency, with good headline poll figures, an extreme long shot at general elections? Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader, who is struggling to get his own party off life support, says he was invited to lead them but declined because they offered “the kind of ideology-free, technocratic, authoritarian centrism that would be more at home in, say, Singapore”.
One sceptical political strategist tells me that “at least the people with lots of money should be able to take the right advice” but broadly “it just doesn’t make sense from outside London or the commuter belt at best — you can’t just introduce a brand-new party on the ground”. And what of the have-a-go heroes? “They will split the vote and let the rightwing Tories back in.”
This taxonomy is united only by their joint probable doom. But public appetite for another alternative may be there: this fringe activity is the electoral equivalent of a tummy rumbling. As Conservative MP Anna Soubry said this week, “there are millions of people in this country who feel that there is not one political party that represents them”.
Hence the constant rumours that circulate in Westminster of “salons” held by former prime minister Tony Blair to gradually bring together rebellious “sensibles” from all the established parties with a view to collaborating at some future point.
And here’s the irony: the Brexit vote is the catalyst for much of this confused and confusing list of initiatives, but the nascent parties fail to address this central issue: they are potential machines for fighting a general election against a leftwing Labour party and the Conservatives in meltdown. By which time, it may be too late to do anything about Brexit. The commonly held view is that the action starts “once this Brexit stuff has all blown over”.
Which leads us back to Mr Blair for a different reason. The former Labour leader sees clearly how to prevent the UK rupturing relations with the EU: “If Labour were really making an issue of Brexit in the right way . . . you could then lead the people who were Labour people that voted for Brexit to an understanding that Brexit’s not the answer to their problems.”
He was quite good at politics, you see. But it is too late to “Take Back Control” of Labour. Which leaves a whole lot of people to start their very own insurgency. Prepare for more.