This spring’s general election reminds us to be cautious about this summer’s opinion polls. None the less, they may be right to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn will be Labour’s next leader: if half those eligible to vote in the contest weren’t party members even as recently as May 7, almost anything could happen. But what will worry thoughtful Labour Parliamentarians and members almost as much as Corbyn winning is him not winning…but coming a good second. He would thus have earned the right to sit at the Shadow Cabinet table, together with his policies, and take one of the top posts. Corbyn for Shadow Chancellor, anyone?
Either way, the future looks unrelievedly bleak for the Blairites – Liz Kendall, Chris Leslie, Caroline Flint, Ben Bradshaw, Alan Johnson, and all the rest of them. If Corbyn wins, Leslie has said that he won’t serve in the Shadow Cabinet, and others would undoubtedly follow him through the exit door. But even if Corbyn doesn’t win, there will be months if not years of wrangling over his programme – unilateral disarmament, the nationalisation of railways and energy, sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah, and now (we read today) the restoration of Clause Four. The last is a symbolic repudiation of Tony Blair and everything he stands for.
During the 1980s, Labour moderates fought this extremism and eventually won. But it took them the best part of 15 years to do so. And, this time round, there is good reason for them to believe it would take even longer: indeed, that victory may actually be impossible. Even during the Michael Foot-led electoral nadir of 1983, Labour was making progress in Scotland. Now, however, the all-conquering party of Donald Dewar and Robin Cook and John Smith is reduced to a single miserable Edinburgh seat. Meanwhile, the party’s problems with England are a matter as much for psychiatrists as psephologists.
So what should the Blairites do? They could choose to slog on, on the ground that Labour will somehow pull off a surprise win in 2020, or form a minority government with the SNP. (Though that wouldn’t be acceptable to them, surely?) Or they could decide that 15 years, never mind eternity, is too long to wait. By 2030, Bradshaw will be 69, Flint 68, Kendall 60 and even Leslie, the baby of the group, 58. Blair himself will be 78 – drawing his state pension, perhaps claiming the winter fuel allowance and even (who knows?) making use of his free bus pass. Such is the melancholy fate of the man who once declared Britain to be “a young country”.
The Blairies could simply leave politics altogether. But if they are fighters and not quitters, as Peter Mandelson once put it, they will reject such quietism. Or they could follow the nomenclature of New Labour and set up on their own as the New Party. However, that title has unfortunate connotations. Or they could join the Liberal Democrats and attempt to recreate the SDP. They would thus become a 1980s tribute band rather than the 1990s one which they are at present. But they may not like the look of that party’s future and might not like the look of Tim Farron, either. This leaves only one logical course for them to take. They should join the Conservatives.
This proposal is not as shocking as it seems. The Tories are no longer the party of Margaret Thatcher – and nor could they be, since the age of Thatcher, like that of Blair, is dead. They stand for gradual deficit reduction (the Chancellor decided in the Budget not to accelerate its rate), overseas aid, more women and ethnic minority MPs, the NHS, same-sex marriage – and now, yes, for that great Blairite device, the minimum wage. Indeed, George Osborne is taking it to places where even Blair himself declined to go. And his localism drive is headed by one of the most powerful men in government – Lord Heseltine, who controls billions of pounds as Chairman of the Regional Growth Fund.
I am not saying that David Cameron is a social democrat leading a government of social democrats. There are lots of differences between liberal Conservatives – to use his own self-description – and Blairite Labourists, not least the Chancellor’s drive to downsize the state. Nor am I saying that it would be good for the Tories were the Blairites to join them. It wouldn’t be. (This site would oppose any such development.) Nor that it would be good for British politics as a whole. It wouldn’t be, either. But I am saying that the Conservatives now offer the least unpleasant home for Blairites. The ghost of Harold Macmillan, himself once a member of the Fabian Society, is holding the door open for them.
It is true that the Blairites would find life in the Conservative Party uncomfortable. For example, Lord Mandelson himself, used as he is to the company of people with titles and money, would find the proximity of so many blue collar workers – Robert Halfon, say – deeply disconcerting. But in a more profound sense the Tories should now be congenial. The best Labour can now offer is Andy Burnham’s execrable leadership campaign, with its cynical pitch to key voter groups such as unions and students. The Conservatives, by contrast, have Michael Gove, with his passion for prison reform; Theresa May, with her hostility to stop and search; Greg Clark, ally of so many Labour council leaders.
Sure, the Left would howl that they’d been right all along about the Blairities, the media would mock, and John Prescott would declare that **** *** *** **** ***. Asked if they were now Conservatives, the newly-Toryised Blairites could reply that they were “fighting to change the party from within” – and that the chances of them changing Cameron or Osborne or Boris Johnson are rather better than those of changing Jeremy Corbyn. One last thought. The Blairites would arrive just in time for the EU referendum. If the thought has occurred to me, it may have occurred to them. And if it has occurred to them, you can bet that it will have occurred to the Chancellor.