New recruits Chuka Umunna and Sam Gyimah were the stars of the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, mobbed wherever they went for selfies with delegates. It marks an extraordinary up-ending of that party’s philosophy.
It wasn’t very long ago that hatred of Tony Blair, in particular the Iraq War, was an animating instinct of the Liberal Democrat Party. His slickness and ideological lightness was the opposite of the Lib Dem brand – the home of geeks and outsiders, somewhat tortured, but well-meaning and deeply sincere. I remember discovering a strong statistical correlation in 2014 between voting Lib Dem and being a fan of sci-fi fiction: it oddly made sense for people who liked to imagine a very different kind of world.
What Chuka Umunna offered to his new party in his conference address yesterday was proudly unreconstructed Blairism. Multiculturalism at home, multilateralism abroad; the “rules-based liberal world order” with more power to institutions like IMF, the World Bank, the UN and the EU. He championed the “free movement of ideas, people, goods and services” – reinforcing the joining together of open borders with free market economics. Globalism, big business, all under a feel-good “progressive” banner. He even snuck in one of Hillary Clinton’s lines about “tearing down walls, not building them” – a dig at Donald Trump.
It felt distinctly retro. Hesitations about this kind of unalloyed Blairism were already being shown by Gordon Brown as prime minister, and certainly by Ed Miliband in the 2010s. Umunna made no mention of the need to answer the lessons of Brexit – a central concern of most politicians since the EU referendum – or ways to protect communities from untrammelled globalisation. On this evidence, he must have felt out of place in the Labour Party ever since his first year as an MP (2010), when David Miliband lost out to his younger brother.
The reception in the hall was not exactly uproarious, but the crowd of still somewhat eccentric party members seemed pleased – flattered, even – that someone so glamorous was gracing their benches. “What a statesman,” I heard one delegate mutter in the café afterwards, evidently in quite a flutter.
I asked Miranda Green, Lib Dem grandee and FT columnist, whether she’d noticed this pivot to Blair. “I’ve been amazed. People who for all the years I’ve been involved with the Lib Dems thought it was the most deeply uncool thing are actually now turning up at this conference as members, some of whom indeed were very Blairite.”
But it was only when talking to Sam Gyimah afterwards, the newest Lib Dem recruit from the Conservatives, that I realised the full extent of the transformation. More than Chuka Ummuna, questions have been raised in the party about Gyimah’s suitability, given his distinctly Conservative love of low taxes and a small state.
But he doesn’t see a tension. ‘If you had said three years ago that the Conservative Party would be focused on protectionism – because that’s where it’s going – rather than free market economics, none of us would have believed you,” he told me. He thinks of Brexit as a protectionist policy, and says he is appalled by a Conservative Party that would even consider barriers to global free trade. “Even before you get to the point of ‘what do you want the top rate of tax to be,’ you’ve got to believe in markets, the rule of law, an open society – and the Liberal Democrats are the only party that are actually championing those things.”
Which raises an intriguing prospect: could these new Blairite Lib Dems outflank the Tories on the *Right*?