Mosley started the New Party in 1930

A new party sounds attractive—but the oddballs who start them spell trouble

New plan, old egos
August 18, 2018

There is a new fact in British politics: the homeless voter. This class spans centre-right to centre-left. Its members are united by their pro-European views and metropolitan lives—in short, they are the sort of people who used to benefit from the political status quo.  

Even if Dominic Grieve tactfully downplays the possibility, there are rising murmurs about realignment. Middle-of-the-road MPs despair at parties they see as hijacked by the extremes and paralysed on  Brexit. Conversations on the doorstep, they say, suggest that today’s electorate is not so different from that which used to smile on Blair and Major—a worried country could be rallied to moderation once more. 

But what’s missing from these conversations, which imagine a new party mapping neatly onto the pre-ordained contours of voters’ preferences, is perhaps the most important factor of all in politics—personality. Even if you want a new party, it pays to think hard about who you want to pull it together. The SDP, a cautionary tale for the centrists, may have been disadvantaged by first-past-the-post, but as much as anything else it failed to “break the mould” because of individuals who simply couldn’t get on.

A new party is a fragile thing: there are no established precedents, no institutional memory to hold conflicting personalities together. Yet it is just those big, forceful politicians who kick against constraints that are tempted to create something new. They try—as David Owen eventually did with his “continuity SDP” in 1991—to create a party around themselves. They are Emmanuel Macrons without the supportive electoral system. 

Owen, whose career trajectory arcs from passionate European to “Leave” campaigner, has been the great disrupter of his generation. He was always at odds with Roy Jenkins, the senior figure in the Gang of Four. Nor, later, could he forge a partnership with David Steel, the Liberal leader during the mid-80s Alliance years. This was not only because of the Spitting Image puppet depicting Steel in Owen’s top pocket, the very junior partner in an Owen appreciation society. The arrogance of Owen and the mildness of Steel disguised real disagreements over policy. And in the end, Owen would never concede enough to make the partnership work. 

Paddy Ashdown, who eventually emerged as leader of the merger of the Liberals and the SDP-minus-Owen, spoke with unusual chill to the BBC about Owen’s determination to keep the SDP alive, even if this destroyed the Lib Dems: “He was not a team builder, he couldn’t create a team, he couldn’t work with a team.” That ultimately did for Owen’s career in Britain, but Ashdown added “he would have been president in the US.”

Many generations have had a charismatic original like Owen with a tendency to cultivate followers rather than colleagues. Oswald Mosley broke with both the Conservatives and Labour, and was briefly the darling of the glamorous left before the appeal of the adoring crowd led him to demagoguery. A generation before that, it was the serial splitter Joe Chamberlain who Churchill thought “the most live, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive figure in British affairs.” All these figures ultimately left political ruin in their wake. 

Churchill himself might be seen as the ultimate ego in 20th-century politics, and in his own words “re-ratted” between parties. But he was in the end capable of uniting against an enemy. He was the only Tory leader Labour would work with in the 1940s and—in return for co-operation—put Clement Attlee in charge of the home front.

The arrangement worked because Attlee was, by temperament, a team player. Collegiate politicians can work around yawning chasms in ideology. In the 1970s Michael Foot, a bookish CND idealist, forged a respectful alliance with Jim Callaghan, a hard-bitten union fixer. In the 1980s, one-nation Tory Willie Whitelaw was indispensable to the ideologue Margaret Thatcher. In the 1990s, John Prescott, a one-time union militant, wanted a Labour government more than he disliked what Tony Blair stood for.

The lesson of a new book on political partnerships, by former Labour MP Giles Radice, is the enduring importance of matching initiators and facilitators—the dazzling Churchills with the modest Attlees who actually get things done. 

Labour has too often forgotten the importance of this mix, succumbing to the sectarian zeal of the late Blair years or the factionalism of today’s Corbynites. So have the Tories. Indeed, one of the great frailties of Theresa May’s government is the lack of personal glue. With Damian Green and Amber Rudd gone, May is alone, zigzagging her way solo through a blue-on-blue firestorm that threatens to engulf her. Whether it does or not will depend as much on personalities as anything else. It is striking that Grieve—an unusually cerebral politician—has pinpointed the thing that could make him walk away from his party: not some high principle on Europe but a Boris Johnson leadership.

Which brings us back to those homeless centrists. The Lib Dems have a long road back into voters’ hearts, so maybe it is time for an ego. But the lesson of history is that both awkward-squad sorts like Anna Soubry who revel in argument, and limelight-hugging charmers like Chuka Umunna need to be handled with care. They need to figure out who their Attlees and Whitelaws are. Then again, if the only ego on offer is Johnson, we’re in for disruption that will leave everyone running for cover.