Jeremy Corbyn assumes his new office, as, possibly, the preferred choice of all the main parties in Britain.
Few, especially within the Conservative Party, could have expected this prize to fall into their lap, when Ed Miliband announced his departure back in May.
What are the wider political consequences of Mr Corbyn?
Cornucopia for Cameron?
The champagne flutes may be overflowing in Matthew Parker Street at the moment, but things could taste a bit flatter in due course.
Corbyn, and the new shadow leadership team, will pull Labour off to the left, based on Corbyn’s own creed, but also that of the majority of Labour’s activists, both the long term ones and the new £3 day-trippers. But Labour’s selectorate are not the electorate. Labour will steadily vacate the political centre ground, to the dismay of many of its MPs.
The political centre will be up for grabs. The Conservatives will lunge for it. George Osborne has been pitching tents here for a while, and now he can settle a whole township. So, expect more along the lines of living wage commitments, middle income tax cuts, extended childcare and sweeteners for home-owners.
The biggest difficulty for Cameron in this opportunistic march to the centre is that his party has a restless right flank. The Conservative’s right wing had to endure a lot during the Coalition years. Now freed from that constraint, the right longs for the centre of gravity in the party to tilt their way. There are strong voices in the party already proclaiming that this must be done not just to return to a true path of Conservatism, but also in order to quash the UKIP threat and to pull back lost support.
The Conservatives will find themselves drawn to both the right and to the centre at the same time. Some triangulation may be possible, but the risk for Cameron is that defining choices will ultimately be forced onto him. If fudged, the government’s narrative may become unclear, and the party could appear divided and fractious.
The potential problems are underpinned by two further factors: Mr Cameron’s impending departure and the EU referendum. The right vs centre divide is not precisely mirrored in the out-in divide over Europe; but the referendum arguments could so easily become the battle ground of choice. And banging on about Europe is not where Mr Cameron wants his party to be.
The challenge for Cameron is to keep his party coherent as it stretches to both right and centre, and as it thinks increasingly about its prospects after his departure. The prize of the Conservative leadership after Cameron has just acquired greater allure. The next leader may anticipate a decade in power. But it’s over the next couple of years that the nature of that Conservative era will become defined.
Fruition for Farron?
The new Liberal Democrat leader, yet to make any mark on the political landscape, will undoubtedly see Labour’s vacation of the political centre as his unexpected early opportunity to reclaim traditional LibDem territory. The trouble is by the time his team get the beach, they are likely to find Tory towels on every sunbed.
The Liberal Democrats’ electoral smash has left the party without impetus or adequate resources. Both its Parliamentary and its local council base have been emasculated. Neither has the public’s disenchantment with the Coalition’s junior partner eased off to any extent.
The migration crisis and Cameron’s faltering EU renegotiation have turned the referendum into an unpredictable affair and nervousness about the outcome is likely to discourage many in the party from choosing this as the ground for a come-back.
An alternative scenario sees the Liberal Democrats folding into, or being the catalyst, for a new centre-left grouping, drawing in significant numbers of Labour MPs who can no longer tolerate their party’s leadership. It’s unlikely. Everyone who contemplates it will be haunted by the fate of the SDP in the 1980s.
Slog for Sturgeon?
Recalling the SNP’s strong anti-austerity rhetoric in the general election, and their denunciation of Labour as the ‘red Tories’, it’s possible to argue that Labour’s move leftwards will make it a much more potent threat to the SNP’s new-found hegemony. Under Corbyn, Labour too becomes anti-austerity and anti-Trident.
But Corbyn’s Labour is unlikely to trouble the SNP. The SNP’s policy stance is pretty centrist and its fiscal conservatism will hold wider appeal than Corbyn’s fiscal fancies.
The SNP also retains its trump card, with its undiminished value – the commitment to independence. The combined effect of an increasing question mark over EU membership, a looming Conservative hegemony, and a smashed Labour party, could result in irresistible pressure for a re-run of the independence referendum, with the prospect of a different result from last time.
Farrago for Farage?
For UKIP, the consequences of Corbyn may prove confusing. Labour’s leftward march may bring an appeal to some of its traditional supporters who felt abandoned under New Labour. But the Corbyn recipe isn’t going to attract back voters worried about immigration. Nor will Corbyn’s defence and foreign policy lines work for these voters. UKIP’s prospects turn more on future developments within the Conservative party. The ultimate outcome of the migration crisis and the EU vote will prove critical. UKIP lives of disaffection. If Labour’s credibility is shot and the Conservative’s narrative becomes confused as it attempts to bridge so wide a spectrum, an adequate supply of pickings may remain.
Memo to party leaders: be careful what you wish for; be even more careful when the wish is granted.
James Plaskitt is a former Labour Minister