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The path to election victory still lies through the middle ground

The writer is an FT contributing editor

The most important word in politics, Margaret Thatcher’s advertising guru once told me, is “moderate”. There is a lesson here for today’s Conservatives as Rishi Sunak’s government reflects on its latest electoral setback. Parties that want to win elections must lay claim to other attributes, but the mantle of moderation is what really matters.

If this thought seemed counterintuitive during the 1980s — Thatcher won three elections without ever being accused of wishy-washy centrism — everything is relative. The then prime minister faced a Labour opposition camped on the distant fringes of the left. Its 1983 manifesto was notoriously described by one Labour MP as the longest suicide note in history.

The Saatchi rule, as I call it, after that encounter with Maurice Saatchi, has weathered well. John Major won in 1992 by shifting post-Thatcherite Conservatism back towards the middle ground. Tony Blair owed his three victories to marrying social conscience with hard-headed economics. David Cameron made it to Downing Street with a mission to “detoxify” the Tory reputation as “the nasty party”. Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019 might seem an exception — until you recall his opponent was Jeremy Corbyn.

What’s striking now is how many Tory MPs dismiss the historical record. With a general election at most 18 months away, last week’s local elections were about as bad as possible for the governing party. But many Tories are already clamouring for another lurch rightwards.

Britain is in a deep hole. Economic growth has vanished, living standards are falling and public services are crumbling. A majority of voters now think Brexit was a mistake. Yet the Tory party’s English nationalists want to continue the fight with Britain’s neighbours by leaving the European convention on human rights — a (non-EU) institution inspired and largely designed by the British. As for the cost of leaving the EU, the nation is asked to blame it all on a mythical liberal elite.

Ministers, including the home secretary Suella Braverman, are betting on the culture wars. The small boats carrying migrants across the Channel threaten the nation’s identity. “Illegal” asylum seekers do not share British values. Identity politics and political correctness are tearing up national tradition. The government, this argument runs, must play these cards in order to hold on to so-called “red wall” voters who backed Johnson on Brexit.

Such radicalism cheers up the ideologically committed, but in choosing the next government voters will be looking for a set of politicians who broadly represent their values and interests. The Conservatives have thrown away the competence card. Johnson disdained sound economics. His shortlived successor Liz Truss blew up what was left of a reputation for prudence. The country wants a government that stops digging.

Sunak, to be fair, has his doubts about rushing rightwards. The prime minister has spent the past six months reversing one or two of the most egregious mistakes of his predecessors. The dispute with Brussels about Northern Ireland trade has been settled and economic policy restored to a semblance of sanity. Sunak’s aides say he is a leader who can get the job done. The snag is that he does not command his party. The pitch is drowned out by the noise of the culture warriors.

Sir Keir Starmer, you might think, should be riding high. The local elections underscored Labour’s lead in the opinion polls. They also confirmed Sunak’s fears that the populist tunes of the Tory right are also driving middle-of-the-road voters into the arms of the Liberal Democrats in England’s shire counties. Yet Starmer is criticised, often in his own party, as too cautious. Where are the imagination and verve? The promise to overturn Brexit?

The Labour leader would do well to ignore such talk. He has jettisoned the Corbynist extremism that handed Johnson victory in 2019. He may lack Blair’s star quality, but his prospectus is much the same: it will take time, but Britain can restore public services without driving the economy into a ditch. Johnson’s premiership drained public trust in the Tories. The important thing for Labour is that voters feel comfortable framing Starmer in the doorway of Number 10 as the nation’s prime minister.

The country is not looking for grand visions. After the lies and psychodrama of the Johnson years, and the madness of the Truss interlude voters, unsurprisingly, are fed up with mendacious politicians doing stupid things. They will not fall for promises of a magic trail to the sunlit uplands. The prospect of moderation and decency will do.

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