THE circus of the party conferences has moved on with all its hoopla, leaving behind a large patch of yellowed grass where the Big Tent stood. What are we to make of the British political scene after all the uncomfortable platform dancing by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, the empty halls in which the speeches of Cabinet ministers were received, and the four-hour queues by the adoring faithful to see their favourite political clowns?
For months now, there has been talk of a new political alignment at Westminster. Pundits constantly repeat the tea-room gossip about a centre party being formed with moderates from all parties. It is an attractive prospect, but no one seems to be quite brave enough to do anything more than discuss the matter over drinks. As soon as this pub closes, the revolution starts, as the late Alex Glasgow memorably put it.
So attractive is the idea that the Prime Minister has tried to purloin it. Moderate and patriotic Labour voters should take a second look at her government, Mrs May wrote last week, quoting a few policies which she thought would appeal to Labour voters: her cap on gas and electricity bills, scrapping stamp duty for first-time buyers, and introducing a national living wage.
This, of course, will be thin gruel to most Labour voters, who will remember cuts to schools, nurseries, care of the elderly, and the continuing crisis in the NHS. Labour moderates may not think much of Mr Corbyn, but they probably think less of the Conservatives. Yet the split between moderates and leftists in Labour continues to keep that party low in the opinion polls. Given the mess that the Conservatives are making of Brexit, Labour ought to be way ahead, but the party languishes six points behind.
This is not much of a choice for moderates of either colour. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, continue to make little impact on public consciousness. Poor old Vince Cable couldn’t even get his tongue around the Big Joke in his leader’s speech, which might have passed unnoticed had not his spin doctors trailed it in advance to the media.
Both main parties are like pantomime horses: their front and back legs move in different directions. Mrs May can proclaim One Nation decencies from the horse’s mouth, but the back legs are dragging her constantly rightwards in the direction of the hardest possible Brexit. The back legs of Labour try stubbornly to hold on to the middle ground, while the front legs scrabble leftwards, and Mr Corbyn mouths appealing populist platitudes.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” W. B. Yeats wrote. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Ireland is, of course, not a good exemplar when it comes to political moderation — in the north, at any rate. There, the politics of extremism forced moderate SDLP and official Unionist politicians out of power, and voters polarised between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
It will be a grim business if the result of the two main parties’ vacating the centre ground leaves voters with a choice between Mr Corbyn and Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.