First we had Tony Blair's big tent. Now we have David Cameron's even bigger tent. At the start of New Labour's first full week in power the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced the independence of the Bank of England. Yesterday, at the start of the first full week of the new Government, George Osborne established the Office for Budget Responsibility. Goodbye to New Labour. Hello again to the politics of 1997.
There are of course epic differences. Cameron had no choice but to form his tent that bulges at the seams with Liberal Democrats. There was no surprise when Osborne announced his new body yesterday compared with the waves of excitement generated by Brown's unexpected declaration. The transfer of power is not as great either, although it follows the trend of the past two decades in which key decisions or influential advice are depoliticised and taken away from elected politicians. Voters will not be able to remove those who form the Office for Budget Responsibility in the same way that the Governor of the Bank of England is still in place after the election even though, perhaps to his relief, a Prime Minister and Chancellor have been removed.
The other most obvious difference is the context. Cameron and Osborne make their moves in a gloomy economic climate. Blair and Brown inherited a fairly buoyant economy, although they behaved as if it was one on the edge of an abyss, talking with insecure machismo about "tough choices" when the choices, compared with the current economic situation, were the equivalent of deciding between a holiday in Tuscany and one in Barbados .
Whatever the differences, Cameron and Osborne are still behaving as the heirs of Blair. They watched with awe as Blair formed his big tent in a way that threatened to destroy the Conservative party. Like Blair, both are more fascinated by the choreography of politics than policy detail. Even if the Conservatives had won an overall majority, Cameron planned to make eye catching appointments from outside his party.
After his election, Blair took the view, as Cameron has done throughout his leadership, that there must be no "no-go" areas in the media and beyond. In the early New Labour era Conservative-supporting editors and columnists were wooed assiduously. I recall sitting in the office of the editor of the New Statesman, Ian Hargreaves, soon after New Labour came to power, when he received a call from the right-wing columnist, Simon Heffer, who wrote for the magazine. Hargreaves had been pressing hard to get an early visit to the new Prime Minister. On the phone Heffer said that he was just leaving No 10 after a very fruitful meeting with Blair and offered to write up his thoughts, which would be highly positive. Hargreaves and I knew our place, and it was in a queue behind writers for The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
Now Cameron asks the left-of-centre writer Will Hutton to advise the Government on public sector pay and the Telegraph must wait. The invitation has a perfect symmetry. Hutton had high hopes of being the leading New Labour guide, but was dropped by the leadership before the 1997 election when his ideas were presented in some quarters – simplistically – as being too union-friendly. Hutton can recall Blair in his kitchen in Islington telling him that his big idea of a "stakeholders' society" would become New Labour's big idea too. The commitment lasted for a single speech that Blair delivered in the relative safety of Singapore shortly before the 1997 election. How neat that it is Cameron who stretches out a hand of friendship to the spurned stakeholder. Frank Field also climbs aboard as the anti-poverty Czar. Blair was constantly looking for Tories to play similar roles.
Building a big tent is clever politics but only for a short period of time. New Labour's big tent started to empty fast when big storms erupted around it and the inhabitants could not agree how to respond. By the end there were not enough exits to cope with all those who wanted to leave.
The length of time that the bulging canvas remains stable is determined by the response of those who are left outside. After 1997, the Conservatives played the role that Blair had assigned them with unthinking naivety. Part of the skill in managing a big tent is to put forward policies that are counter-intuitive. Famously, in Brown's early Budgets he stuck rigidly to the Conservatives' spending plans, the ones that the outgoing Chancellor, Ken Clarke, had described as "eye-wateringly tight". The reaction of the Conservative leadership in opposition was to describe these puny spending proposals as "reckless and irresponsible".
Without much of a shove the Conservatives moved to the wilder shores by opposing what had been their own rigid spending policies. A pattern was established. Whatever policy emerged from the big tent the Conservatives opposed, even if it was closer to their own beliefs. Michael Portillo began to address the destructive mindset when as shadow chancellor he declared his party's support for the minimum wage and independence for the Bank of England. Cameron developed the subtler approach by supporting Blair's schools reforms. Labour was more traumatised by support from the Conservatives than they had been by their opposition.
The first big test for Labour in opposition will be Osborne's emergency Budget next month. If Cameron and Osborne continue to follow the early new Labour model, the Budget will be reasonable and contain measures that meet the centre left's definition of "fairness", in the same way that Brown went out of his way to reassure the right about his prudence in relation to spending. Labour will fall straight into the old trap if it condemns the entire package. The same applies to a whole range of measures that will pour fourth in the coming months, from welfare to constitutional reform.
There will be much need and cause for genuine opposition to a coalition full of inexperienced policy makers and awkwardly matched ministerial partners, but like the Conservatives in 1997 Labour will be swept to the margins if it opposes indiscriminately. Selective support is much more likely to hasten the coalition's demise.Reuse content