On a sunny Saturday morning eight years ago, I was supposed to be watching one of my sons at his football practice. In truth, my attention was on my mobile phone as the Labour leadership election results were announced. At this point, the decision was inevitable, but it was nonetheless such an extraordinary occurrence that I wanted to see the results announced just to convince myself that all the informed speculation was true. Jeremy Corbyn was the new leader of the Labour Party.
Being in public, I tried not to show much emotion. Nor, when doing media interviews later that weekend, did I want to reveal what I really thought. I would congratulate the new leader of the Labour Party on his election but intone with great solemnity about how there were serious questions to be asked about his views and attitudes. There were serious questions to be asked, of course, but what I really thought was that the Labour membership had just gifted the Conservative Party at least one and possibly two general election victories. This, I thought, was excellent news for the country, my party and (as a youngish minister in good standing with my party leadership) me. I was, I must admit, ever so slightly gleeful.
How foolish I was. The election of Corbyn was the first evidence that our politics was entering a period of weirdness, but it was also a contributory cause of much of what was to follow. Weirdness begat weirdness. With a different, more conventional Labour leader the country may well have not voted for Brexit. The Conservative Party might have avoided periods of complacency (when many MPs convinced themselves they had the political space to pursue an impossible Brexit outcome) followed by panic (“Boris Johnson is the only one who can stop Corbyn”). The large parliamentary majority that opposed Johnson’s brinkmanship might have been able to work more effectively together.
My confidence that Corbyn would lead to a crushing election victory for the Tories in four or five years’ time turned out to be correct, but I had not anticipated that I would be one of those crushed. (Corbyn’s victory was not, after all, good for my career.) Nor had I anticipated that in the interim there would be another general election in which Corbyn would far surpass expectations (to the horror of many of his MPs).
What I had failed to appreciate in September 2015 is that when the principal opposition party acts in a peculiar and eccentric way, there is no guarantee that the government party or the electorate will not follow suit.
I make this point shortly before what will likely be the last Conservative Party conference before a general election. Most observers (and Conservative MPs) expect the Tories to lose that election and for Rishi Sunak to resign as leader soon afterwards. Whatever is left of the Conservative parliamentary party will then put forward two candidates to the party membership. With a track record of choosing Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, there is a very good chance that the membership will choose the candidate of the right.
At this point, the temptation for Labour will be to see this as good news. The Tories will have made themselves unelectable, narrowing their potential for support and thereby increasing the chances of Labour being re-elected. But, having gone through a similar experience after 2015, there are three reasons why this might be the wrong response.
First, while the view that a further lurch to the right would almost certainly be a political mistake, there is a slim chance it might work. Labour will inherit a weak economy with unsustainable public finances. Keir Starmer will have done remarkably well to win power in the circumstances but does not have huge reserves of political capital with either the country or his party. The electorate has demonstrated that it can be extraordinarily volatile in recent years. Nearly everyone thought Corbyn would be an electoral disaster but that was not the case the first time around. In other words, even a Conservative Party that has gone mad might win in 2029.
Second, an extreme opposition creates uncertainty that can be economically damaging. The benefit of lower corporation tax rates was largely outweighed by Brexit uncertainties after 2016 but the possibility of a Corbyn government reversing previous cuts did not help (as it happens, it was a Conservative government that reversed the earlier rate reductions). Investors are already worried that Sunak’s U-turns on net zero mean that there is uncertainty over the UK’s approach. If a Conservative opposition decided to differentiate itself further on green policies, attracting investment into these sectors would become harder. The same might be said for house-building or any aspect of a Labour government’s industrial strategy.
Third, if the Conservatives really did look as if they had disappeared into the wilderness, internal discipline within the government could break down. Though one would like to think these are the circumstances where brave, long-term decisions can be taken, the more likely response is an outbreak of factional fighting as ambitious politicians seek to advance their own careers and agendas at the expense of the overall coherence and unity of the government.
All of this means that the future of the Conservative Party (whether in government or opposition), and centre-right politics, matters – even to those on the left of centre. Cheekily, I should add that it is also why The Case for the Centre Right – a selection of essays published tomorrow, which I have edited – arguing for a return to a more internationalist and liberal approach within centre-right politics might be of interest to New Statesman readers.
[See also: The New Statesman’s right power list]