Steve Richards: Cameron should beware the centre ground. It is more treacherous than he realises

Heavyweights squeal in anguish because he leads a party still largely entrenched on the right
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Party leaders, potential leaders, ardent followers of leaders and potential leaders rush to the centre ground. Some aspire to be there. Some assume they are there already and cling on jealously. For all of them, the centre is the only safe place to be.

Indeed no ambitious politicians acknowledge any more a divide between left and right. In the apolitical consensus, the terms are discarded ruthlessly. Listen to Liberal Democrat candidates in their leadership contest. They are not left, nor right. They are liberal, an adjective so flexible it explains in itself the party's identity crisis. Meanwhile, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not dare argue for a left of centre consensus. They seek a progressive consensus, knowing few will counter them by joining an unfashionable-sounding reactionary consensus. Now David Cameron states his party must be on the centre ground, turning his back on traditional right-wing solutions.

The risk-averse political leaders and aspiring leaders take more of a risk than they realise. For all its allure, the centre ground fuels a defensive timidity. After four election defeats, New Labour's pioneers assumed Britain was more conservative than it really was. Here is Michael Portillo writing last weekend in The Sunday Times: "By comparison with the Americans, the British are socialistic. They believe in the NHS, progressive taxation and the welfare state". No senior Labour minister would dare to put it as boldly as that. Some of them do not even privately subscribe to such an analysis. In Tony Blair's view, a Conservative administration could govern from the right in conservative Britain. The Labour Party has the space only to rule from the centre.

Yet in the view of a former Conservative cabinet minister, Michael Portillo, Britain is a left-of-centre country. Perhaps that is why Oliver Letwin has sought headlines about his party's support for redistribution, a term never deployed by Mr Brown, and why David Cameron has stressed that the Conservatives were capable of challenging businesses, whereas Mr Blair goes out of his way to deliver whatever businesses demand of him.

Perhaps that is also why yesterday it was Mr Cameron who dared to propose sweeping reforms of the hopelessly outdated police service, whereas the Government, scared of being seen as soft on crime, has failed to reform the most conservative institution of the lot.

Mr Portillo is on to something. In 1997, voters turned away from 18 years of Tory rule and were receptive at least to left-of-centre arguments. Instead, they continued to receive from their newly elected government more lectures about the virtues of the market, the extreme limits of the state and the overwhelming importance of Britain's alliance with a US Republican president. Now in the overcrowded centre ground, it is the defeated Tories who pay homage to the centre left while some in New Labour bow still to the centre right.

The fearful timidity is heightened by the lack of any clear route map on the centre ground. After the 2001 election, as Mr Blair clung to the centre ground, he was against further significant rises in public spending. The former Downing Street adviser Peter Hyman writes in his recent book that Mr Blair felt the spending increases in the first term were sufficient. Yet those more rooted on the centre left, including Mr Blair's advisers, recognised that additional investment was urgently necessary. Already Gordon Brown was planning an increase in national insurance contributions, a rise that Mr Blair had wanted to rule out during the 2001 campaign. The centre ground had offered Mr Blair poor guidance in relation to the massive public spending needs of the second term.

The same terrain will offer erratic guidance to Mr Cameron, too. At the moment, he is in the protected position of announcing policy reviews rather than having to decide on their outcome. But will he find scope for tax cuts and maintaining public services? Can he extend the markets in the NHS without dismantling the institution? Can schools be independent and free while the Government determines whether or not they select pupils? The centre ground offers no clear answers, one of the reasons why the schools' White Paper is a muddle. Those on the centre left and centre right have plenty of answers, and that is where the real political debate should erupt. The left of centre argues that markets cannot work effectively in schools and hospitals, there is no scope for tax cuts while public services struggle to recover from the parsimony of the past three decades, and that schools are part of a community and are therefore best regulated by a locally accountable body.

The right believes tax cuts will lead to higher economic growth, markets will liberate schools and hospitals and that free standing schools will lead to improvements across the board. The centre offers little more than a meek suggestion that parties should reassure voters. As a result, Labour is pro-markets, anti-state and tough on defence by supporting the US in the war against Iraq. The Conservatives stress their commitment to a publicly funded NHS, support for redistribution and express their willingness to stand up to the police and business.

This is where the centre ground becomes especially treacherous. As leaders make the leap to apparent safety, they leave their parties behind. Mr Blair has made his differences with Labour part of his distinctive pitch, but now he finds even the ultra-loyal Neil Kinnock opposing his plans to create supposedly free standing and independent schools.

A significant section of the Cabinet is worried too. Britain is still a party-based system. Leaders cannot be at odds with their party for very long. What should cause Mr Cameron some concern is the early reaction to his leap on to the centre ground. The right are protesting more noisily than I had thought likely. The letter writers to The Daily Telegraph fume. Lord Tebbit has waded in. Yesterday, a former adviser to Mrs Thatcher, John O' Sullivan, warned that disillusioned Tories had ways of protesting about the centrist direction, by staying at home or supporting UKIP or the "flag waving" Gordon Brown. Mr Cameron leads a party still largely entrenched on the right, so much so that even as he takes them into a lead in the polls some heavyweights squeal in anguish. If they squeal too loudly, the benevolent narrative will switch to one about splits within his party.

With good cause and bleak personal experience, Neil Kinnock said to me during the last election: "I like my politics raw, but elections are won on the centre ground." He was speaking in relation to the Conservatives' disastrous moves further to the right as New Labour marched on to some of their terrain. But New Labour marched too far, and now the Conservatives do not march together. Beware the centre ground. It is not as safe as it seems.