Has George Osborne secured the defection of one of Labour’s biggest brains right in the middle of Conservative party conference? Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and former Secretary of State for Transport, will serve as head of the government’s Infrastructure Commission, resigning the Labour whip to do so.
But underneath the headlines, talk of a defection is wide of the mark. Adonis is no more defecting than David Triesman did when he resigned the Labour whip in the House of Lords to take up a job as head of the Football Association, or Chris Smith did when he did the same to head up the Environment Agency. They, like Adonis will, remained due-paying members of the Labour party throughout.
Policy-wise, it’s a coup for Labour, not the Conservatives: a straight cut and paste from Labour’s 2015 manifesto: the national infrastructure commission was a brainchild of Adonis and Ed Balls, now appropriated by Osborne. Adonis is one of Labour’s biggest brains, and his appointment is unquestionably good news for British infrastructure.
The politics of the appointment are, in the short term, a victory for both Osborne and Adonis. Adonis is 52 – he will be 57 by the next election, and if, as many from his wing of the party believe, Corbyn dooms Labour to defeat in 2020, he will be 62 by the time Labour next has a chance of office.
Adonis, who had expected to be serving as a transport expert in Tessa Jowell’s mayoral administration, now has in the words of one close ally, the “chance to implement Labour policy over the next five years”. And for Osborne, the benefits are obvious: controversial, big infrastructure programmes like High Speed Two now come with the guarantee of cross-party support.
But the longterm winner will likely be Jeremy Corbyn, at least as far as his position in the party is concerned. The word “Blairite” is often comically misapplied – to, for example, Chris Leslie, or Yvette Cooper, both of whom owe large parts of their political careers to their political closeness to Gordon Brown – but in Adonis’ case it is entirely accurate.
His temporary exit from Labour politics will only confirm the suspicion in parts of the Labour party that the party’s moderates are Conservative sleeper agents, making it much harder for anyone to dissent from the Corbyn line, let alone seek to displace him. So it’s a coup for Osborne – but a big victory for Corbyn.