What does Sam Gyimah’s defection to the Liberal Democrats tell us about the state of the British party system? Much has and will be written on that question. But for the answer, look not to Jo Swinson, but to David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair.
In 2012, two years into Gyimah’s first term as a Conservative MP, Cameron appointed him as his parliamentary private secretary, a post he held until his appointment as a minister the following year.
For an MP to be appointed PPS to the prime minister means, above all else, that they are trusted to act as their ambassador to a parliamentary party that may or may not be be entirely trusting of its leader. In most cases, the PPS is politically aligned with the Downing Street operation they serve. At the very least, they are fiercely loyal to it.
So that one of David Cameron’s closest lieutenants has not only left the Conservative Party but has joined another suggests two things. The first, which should be obvious enough to anyone even vaguely familiar with British politics in 2019, is that his political project has been abandoned by the Conservative Party in favour of something much harsher. The second should be more concerning for those Cameroons who have decided to stay put. Increasingly, their fellow travellers believe the party is no longer a salvageable vehicle for their principles.
The same is true of Labour. Consider Cameron’s immediate predecessor, Gordon Brown. His first PPS, enforcer and most devoted personal follower was Ian Austin. As he frequently reminds his former colleagues, Austin took the decision to quit Labour in February because he believes Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is tolerant of racism and entirely alien to the party’s social democratic traditions. Earlier that same week, Ann Coffey, who was Tony Blair’s first PPS, reached – give or take her pro-Europeanism – the same conclusion, and quit Labour to found what was then the Independent Group.
What does the pattern tell us about how the big parties are changing? In some respects, nothing that we didn’t know already: their old hegemonies have collapsed, and aren’t coming back. But it is an especially striking illustration of that truth.