As I look back, here at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, it’s as if 2002 is from another era entirely—like one of those viral Ronald Reagan clips hailing the positive impact of immigration. Seventeen years ago, Blair was king—fresh from a second landslide victory, all-powerful, and on a mission, six months before ensnaring himself in Iraq.
The Blair and Clinton rule book was simple. Successful political leaders were a sacrifice party activists had to endure for their side to win power. Real leaders defined themselves against their party’s instincts and used conferences like the one in Blackpool to talk not to their base, but to the country at large. Politics was a consumer industry, and political parties were businesses, not charitable cooperatives run by the workers.
For the first time since I started attending these strangely British political jamborees, the rules of the game as laid out by Blair have been entirely junked. Britain’s political leaders are now tribunes of the party base, amplifying their demands, not challenging them. Jeremy Corbyn has played this role ever since ascending to the Labour throne in 2015. He is the activists’ hero, defining himself against Labour’s members of Parliament, not the party’s base.
Read: Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain would reshape Western alliances
What is unique about 2019 is that this now applies to both main political leaders. In Manchester, Boris Johnson has been cheered everywhere as the conquering Tory hero, a kind of Brexit Corbyn. After the drab, depressing years of Theresa May and the insults toward the party from David Cameron, here is a true Tory. The “mad, swivel-eyed loons” are now doing things their way. Enough of the sacrifice.
The break with the recent past signals a fundamental shift in British politics following the 2016 Brexit referendum. Gone are the attempts to establish a compromise position acceptable to the center. In the Brexit civil war, there is no “third way” between Remain and Leave—you must choose a side.
Read: It’s too late for David Cameron to apologize
In Blair’s Britain, political leaders were modern, centrist, progressive. He had taken on the left in his party and won, symbolically stripping out the old “clause four” of the party’s constitution that promised to socialize the economy and replacing it with mushy aspiration. After being elected prime minister, he promised not to turn back left, vowing that he had campaigned as “New Labour” and would govern as New Labour. His failure to challenge the Thatcherite economic consensus is held against him by the left. To be called a Blairite within Labour today is a pejorative.
After Blair, Gordon Brown came and went, unsure whether to distance himself from his predecessor or copy him, speaking of Real Labour (not New Labour) one minute, only to invite Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street the next. Cameron, the heir to Blair, soon saw him off, selling the Conservative Party with a familiar image—a modern man challenging his party.