Tuesday 18 June 2019 5:10 am

Chuka failed – but the centre ground isn’t as empty as you’d think

It’s been a sad, strange journey for Chuka Umunna.

Only a few short years ago, he was being touted as Britain’s Barack Obama, the telegenic answer to Labour’s prayers – at a time when their then leader couldn’t even eat a bacon sandwich without looking like his face was pulling in three different directions.

But even before Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies took over the Labour party completely and exiled the Blairites to the outer darkness, there was a sense that Chuka was out of step with the times.

In 2016, after Chuka and his allies had completed the hat-trick of losing a General Election, the Labour leadership and the EU referendum, I went to hear him speak on the future of politics, and Labour.

The recipe for the party’s salvation, he insisted, was to “find a position on immigration that brings everyone together” – which as best I can recall involved young people going to talk to their grandparents and tell them not to be so racist.

Oh, and he also thought that we should introduce proportional representation.

In the discussion that followed, I suggested to him that – given how incredibly irritated quite a lot of voters were about quite a lot of things – the party would do better to learn from Nigel Farage than disinter the corpse of Tony Blair. It’s fair to say that he got a bit narky with me.

So Chuka did it his way. And what a way it was. The new party he helped start has been a political Hindenburg, launched with all the pomp and majesty Westminster could muster before crashing into flaming ruin.

In a few short months, it’s been through more reinventions than Snoop Dogg – first The Independent Group, then Change UK, occasionally For Change Now, and currently split between rival factions The Independent Group and The Independent Group for Change (People’s Front of Judea Branch).

A chastened Chuka has now sought refuge with the Liberal Democrats, pursued by mocking reminders of all the various unflattering things he has said about them over the years. But even that party’s recent surge feels more like a negative phenomenon than a positive one – driven by an inflow of Remainers angry about Brexit and despairing of Corbyn.

It all seems to point to an environment in which centrism is dead and extremism and polarisation are surging. Poor Chuka stands as the metrosexual embodiment of the world we have lost. Certainly, that’s the argument you generally hear in the media.

But the weird thing is, centrism isn’t dead at all.

In the current Conservative leadership race, you’d expect the candidates – given that they’re trying to appeal first to Tory MPs, and then to Tory members – to be competing to be the furthest to the right: the toughest on immigrants, the most scornful of modernity.

Instead, as Fraser Nelson pointed out last week, pretty much all of them are campaigning as modern, moderate, compassionate Conservatives. Yes, they want to cut taxes and help business. But they’re also keen on tackling climate change, investing in education, preserving Our Precious NHS.

Dominic Raab is the most orthodox free-marketeer – but even he is talking about improving maternity pay and protection for working mothers, and stressing the need to focus tax cuts on the low-paid.

And now that the deficit has at last been brought under control, all the candidates are likely to ease the fiscal rules to prioritise higher spending or lower taxes over swifter debt reduction.

This phenomenon is particularly apparent when it comes to the frontrunner. I pointed out on Twitter this week that much of the left seems to have fallen victim to what you might call Boris Derangement Syndrome – condemning him as a bigoted, racist fascist, the British counterpart of the despised Donald Trump.

Which makes it all the stranger that Boris Johnson is campaigning unequivocally as a One Nation Conservative. Yes, he’s talking about the importance of wealth creation and galvanising power of tax cuts. But he also wants to increase funding for hard-done-by schools, hand more money to the police, and invest heavily in infrastructure.

This is a platform that’s an awful lot closer to David Cameron than Margaret Thatcher, let alone Farage.

The exception, of course, is Brexit. But again, promising to actually deliver the thing that more than half of the voting population ordered our politicians to deliver is hardly an extremist position, pretty much by definition.

And again, Boris isn’t standing on stage telling the Europeans to screw themselves. His launch speech made it clear that he’d very strongly prefer deal to no-deal, and wants Britain to be the closest of friends and allies to the EU nations once we’ve left.

These are, in other words, turbulent times. And whoever becomes Prime Minister, the storms are likely to continue.

But the remarkable thing, certainly compared to many of our European neighbours, isn’t how far the ruling party has drifted from the centre – but how stubbornly it still clings to it.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.