The new centre party is here already – and it won the election

The arithmetic of a hung parliament means that an informal coalition of centrist Conservatives and centrist Labour MPs holds power

John Rentoul
Sunday 02 July 2017 20:16
Theresa May has become a mere figurehead in this informal centrist coalition
Theresa May has become a mere figurehead in this informal centrist coalition

There is a need for a new centre-ground party in Britain, said 45 per cent of voters before the election, in a ComRes poll for The Independent. Funnily enough, and without a British Emmanuel Macron to lead it, that is what they got. The result of the election was a centrist compromise: a Conservative government with moderate Labour policies.

The effect of the election was to strip out the policies seen as right wing from the Conservative programme: the dementia tax; the squeeze on the state pension; the creation of new secondary moderns; and the return of fox hunting.

There has been much throwing-up of hands in liberal horror at the socially conservative views of the DUP, which reflect those of many people in Northern Ireland, and which, it turns out, are shared by Angela Merkel, who thinks that marriage is between a man and a woman. But the deal between the Conservative Government and the DUP confirmed the Corbynite universal principle of winter fuel payments for pensioners, and increased spending on the NHS – including mental health – and schools in one of the most deprived regions of the country.

No wonder Labour was torn between condemning the grubby bribe to Northern Ireland and demanding that equivalent sums be found for the NHS and schools in the rest of the UK.

Chuka Umunna proposes rebel backbench motion that would keep Britian in EU if May failed to get deal

Theresa May prepared to announce the most important policy of the new, centrist Government at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, but Jeremy Corbyn failed to ask a question about public sector pay. Quite properly and effectively, he devoted all six questions to the Grenfell Tower fire. That meant it was left to one of May’s spokespeople to say, in a briefing for journalists afterwards: “We’ve heard the message at the election,” that people are “weary after years of hard work to rebuild the economy”, and that the public sector pay cap would be reviewed in the autumn Budget.

The message was muddied by a later briefing that “the Government policy has not changed”, but it is clearly changing. It may not be the end of austerity but there is certainly an adjustment coming.

Which is, I think, what the voters want. The annual British Social Attitudes survey, published this week, confirmed the rule laid down by Professor John Curtice, keeper of the election truths, that views of taxing and spending are “counter-cyclical”. After years of public spending restraint, support for public spending increases. The willingness to pay more taxes never keeps up, but it has risen too.

The Law of Finkelstein’s Friend has been confirmed again. This is the law, set out by an anonymous friend of Daniel Finkelstein, the Times columnist and Conservative peer: “In every contest since universal suffrage in 1928 the party that was more fit to govern has been victorious.” This time, it was the centre party. It doesn’t actually exist, so the voters elected a hung parliament that, in effect, created it.

My esteemed colleague Ben Chu, Economics Editor of The Independent, thinks this is “quack mysticism”. But I think there is a truth in it. The voters don’t like falling real incomes, they are suspicious of undiluted Toryism, but they don’t want unbridled Corbynism either. They couldn’t vote for a hung parliament, but the election result was a reasonable aggregate of what people did want: a tweak on the austerity-meter, rather than the vast tax and spending increases promised in the Labour manifesto.

And, for the throwers-up of hands, an actual advance in the reproductive rights of women in Northern Ireland was legislated for by Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow who was this week as powerful as any Secretary of State. By tabling a well-worded amendment to the Queen’s Speech motion, she forced the centrist government to fund abortions for Northern Irish women on the English NHS.

The arithmetic of a hung parliament means that an informal coalition of centrist Conservatives and centrist Labour MPs holds power, with May as a mere figurehead. One problem is that this centrist party doesn’t have a policy on Brexit. It doesn’t want to stay in the EU single market – Chuka Umunna’s Queen’s Speech amendment to that effect was heavily defeated this week. But I see trouble ahead between the centre party and the hard Brexiteers over prioritising trade with the EU or with the rest of the world.

Nor does the centre party have a leader. But perhaps one emerged this week. She voted for Labour’s amendment to give emergency workers a pay rise, and for Umunna’s single market amendment. But then, having recently declared, “There are no circumstances in which I would be supporting a Labour government led by Mr Corbyn,” she voted to support the Government’s programme as set out in the Queen’s Speech. Here is our new Macron: Sylvia Hermon is the independent unionist MP for North Down. She is the only MP from Northern Ireland apart from the DUP, given that Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats. She usually votes with Labour, but has no truck with Corbyn’s views on security.

Perhaps Lady Hermon should be prime minister.

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