I had a Twitter conversation with a journalist about David Miliband earlier today. His point was that DM was nowhere near as great as centrists claim; that he speaks in a language not dissimilar to his brother, distant and overly wonkish. I joked that “he’s the best there is available. And he’s not even available”. But this has left me thinking about potential Macron figures in Britain and why there is such a shortage of candidates who could even remotely be considered.
Everyone with any political talent in the centre of British politics has way too much baggage. Nick Clegg for his time in coalition and in particular, tuition fees; George Osborne, who is inextricably linked with austerity; Tony Blair, for all those things we don’t need to go over again here now. If there’s talent out there without baggage, talent enough to lead the centre back to something resembling electability, it is in a very nascent state at present.
But there has to be someone, right? Chuka Umunna springs to mind. He’s young and relatable, at least by the standards of the current crop of MPs in the House. Yet he’s in a Labour Party that has lost its mind, so unless he leaves said party, I don’t see how he advances any kind of new politics – and he does not seem minded to do so, at least as things stand. There are several people on the Tory backbenches who might evolve into something interesting in this respect. But they have the same problem Chuka does, getting past a membership that is devoutly uncentrist as well in this instance, a significant group of MPs who are very right-wing. Now would be the time for the Tories to reinvent conservatism to include the widest possible number of people, yet at the moment there seems to be a deeply held desire to continue alienating far too much of its potential electorate. After spring 2019 has come and gone, they will have a chance to hit the reset button – but they will only have one chance. At least it’s more than the Labour Party is going to get.
Is it that there aren’t figures of significant clout in Westminster who could fill this role, or is it the party system as it currently operates? I think it’s probably more of the latter. For whatever reason, the two party system has developed a weird glitch at the same time that every other choice has shut themselves down as alternatives: UKIP for eating itself, the Lib Dems for retiring, post-coalition, into a warm, small bed of extreme Lib Deminess, the Greens for being Corbyn-lite, no credible centrist party yet emerging. Because of all this, the most likely outcome is that the Tories get a new leader in 2019 who is capable of getting the majority denied to May by occupying the centre ground. However, this is far from certain.
Nothing big will happen in British politics until the autumn. What comes of Brexit and the two main parties after May returns from Brussels with a very soft, possibly fudged final Brexit position with the EU will be the next moment to really watch. Perhaps then, a centrist candidate will ride in from seemingly nowhere. Come the hour, come the politician, as it were.