The Mitchell saga shows Tories in a branding emergency

It is a bad sign when what a politician actually said matters less than the kind of things people expect him to say.

Why did Andrew Mitchell have to resign from his post as Conservative chief whip? The explanation has many layers. The facts of the original pomp-and-profanity episode remain obscure. Mitchell disputes the police record. Politicians sometimes lie; so do police officers. On the evidence alone that should make it a stalemate. What appears to have done for Mitchell is the feeling in the parliamentary Conservative party, especially among the 2010 intake of MPs, that his credibility and authority were shot.

It was never going to be easy for the chief whip to impose discipline when his own lack of self-control had been thoroughly advertised for the best part of a month. But why did the original allegations matter so much in the first place? The toxic element was the suggestion of arrogant snobbery, which was only noteworthy largely because it risked reinforcing problems with David Cameron’s own image – aloof, unacquainted with hard graft, surrounded by a gilded elite.

One of the peculiar features of the whole Mitchell saga is that the only reason it was a “news” story at all was contained in tangential relevance to the wider problem with Cameron’s leadership. (Few people outside Westminster know or care who a chief whip is and what he does). Yet Cameron appears to have been the very last person to think that Mitchell’s outburst was significant. That is why Tory MPs are so cross with their leader. He neither grasped the emblematic power of the incident, nor found a way to contain the story once it was running. He – or rather the Number 10 operation he runs - showed faulty initial judgement and followed it up with ineffective political technique.

Even that doesn’t get to the essence of why this particular resignation is revealing. Most resignations do little lasting damage to a government and it is too early to say if this one will be any different. I think it does matter in one crucial respect: To recap - Mitchell didn’t resign over something momentous he had done or because the Prime Minister lost confidence in him as a result of things he was alleged to have done. He resigned because the stench of brand decay hung about him. It is the first instance I can think of where someone was sacked not because of something they said, but because of something representing just the kind of thing they might be expected to say.

The implications of this for the Conservatives are pretty serious. The same phenomenon could be observed on Friday afternoon when it emerged that George Osborne sat in a first class seat on a train without the ticket to go with it. This became a media event not because of evidence that Osborne intended cynically to evade his fare or kicked up a fuss when challenged. No such evidence exists. It became a story because sitting in first class with a standard ticket and pointedly refusing to move for fear of proximity to the great unwashed is, in the public imagination, just the sort of thing Osborne might be expected to do.

This is a step beyond ordinary communications problems. It signals the arrival of a new phase in the cycle of political decay. This is the point where the government struggles to get its message out because the official line cannot compete with negative stories that reinforce a pre-established hostile narrative. Anything that appears to support the worst interpretation of what it means to be a "typical Tory" in the Cameron-Osborne mould is newsworthy – pretty much regardless of whether it actually happened. And these were supposed to be the people to “decontaminate” the brand. No wonder Tory MPs are worried.

Former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who resigned last Friday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.