Cuts, war, Brexit: all fuel the battle for the centre ground, but no one really knows where that is

The “centre ground” commands much of the political stage. Bookshelves creak with new works from famous authors analysing what fellow centrists get right and wrong. Podcasts launch on a near daily basis hosted by self-proclaimed centrists aimed at an audience that is sometimes described self-mockingly as “centrist dads” – the mockery a sign of confidence. In the political arena, Keir Starmer hails Labour’s return to the centre ground. Tony Blair gives interviews most weeks celebrating his party’s occupation of the terrain he has always appeared to occupy. The centre ground is getting crowded.

But what is this much sought-after terrain over which so many political and media stars seek to coalesce? The answer is far from clear. The ubiquity of the term and its unique imprecision distorts the way British politics is perceived and conducted. In order to highlight the lack of clarity, here is a brief guided tour of the centre ground via its most articulate advocates. The tour could be a lot longer.

On economic policy, the former Conservative MP Rory Stewart was and is a supporter of the austerity policies introduced by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2010, the real-terms spending cuts that went deeper than any of Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s. In contrast, the Labour MPs who formed the short-lived centrist Change UK party were passionate opponents of Osborne’s economic policies – a problem as the Conservative backbenchers who defected to the same party were proud advocates of the cuts. On the most fundamental issue, a radical economic policy, “centrists” take opposite positions.

Related: Keir Starmer essay sets Labour on course for centre ground

In terms of delivering public services, Stewart describes Labour’s former health secretary Alan Milburn as “heroic” for his attempted reforms of the NHS. But in his otherwise convivial memoir, the centrist Ed Balls describes Milburn’s reforms as “unacceptable and ridiculous”. The term “reform” is enough in itself to get some centrists excited, even if the advocates do not specify in detail what form any change might take. Blair invented the juxtaposition “reform versus anti-reform”. Cameron copied it. But who is against reform? I know of no one who enters politics in order to keep everything as it is. The essence of the democratic debate is the nature of reform – and that is where the centre ground fractures.

Meanwhile in the pivotal area of tax and spend, Blair insists that if anything, taxes are too high and increased spending is not the solution to current crises. With a more forensic analysis, Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests taxes will have to rise. More specifically, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, rules out wealth taxes as part of Labour’s centrist pitch. The centrist journalist Matthew d’Ancona, the author of an elegant essay in Prospect on the centre ground, suggests there is a case for a wealth tax.

On foreign policy, Stewart regards the war in Iraq as a disaster. Blair continues to insist that it was “the right thing to do”. As for the attempts by centrist Labour MPs and others to seek a second referendum on Brexit, Stewart describes the doomed move as “insane”. Stewart also condemns Starmer’s handling of Jeremy Corbyn. Stewart is a pluralist who welcomes, as part of his centrism, a range of views within parties. Starmer seeks definition in his move to the centre ground by preventing prominent figures on the left from standing for Labour at elections.

The difference on internal party matters raises a wider dilemma. In theory, most centrists advocate a big transfer of power from Westminster. Yet understandably they want to show that every halfpenny raised by central government will be spent prudently. In which case they need to keep a firm control on how money is spent away from Whitehall.

Here is why the vague ubiquity matters. The BBC is not biased to the left or right, but it can sometimes lose all rigour when faced with those that claim to be on the “centre ground”. A few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a programme with the title Can the Centre Hold?. Its two star guests were Blair and Osborne. There was no questioning of whether they were “centrists” and what that meant. Was it “centrist” to invade Iraq or respond to the 2008 global crash with real-terms spending cuts? There was an acceptance that both guests were on the centre ground.

Similar assumptions took hold when the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson died earlier this year. Cameron paid an unqualified tribute on the World at One. The surprised presenter suggested to Cameron that as a “centrist” he was to the left of Lawson. The question was depressingly absurd, reflecting the mindset of large parts of the media at the time. The more substantial and textured Lawson was an inspiration for Cameron’s reheated Thatcherism, a policy distant from the “centre”, wherever that is.

The UK’s big election winners, Thatcher and Blair, in different ways continue to have a hold on political and media culture. Blair’s continuing impact lies in the fashion for the ill-defined “centre”. For years he has argued that the terms “left” and “right” no longer have relevance – and the fundamental divide is “open v closed”, a reference to Brexit among other issues.

But open v closed has been a divide for centuries. The historic divisions over protectionism and free trade split parties in the 19th century. The issue of Britain and Europe has always triggered alliances between parties. The same applies to social liberalism, a cause that has long attracted inter-party support. That does not mean left and right no longer exist. They remain more useful terms to make sense of British politics than “centre”. Rishi Sunak’s reasonable demeanour has led some commentators to describe him as “centrist” or a “technocrat”. Fortunately he has offered greater clarity himself by hailing his “fiscal conservatism”. He is a figure of the right. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have to be quite some way to the left of Sunak to be anywhere near the centre.

The UK is at a potential turning point, with most voters concluding that nothing works. In such a striking context, the media should stop applying the term “centrist” as if it is self explanatory. Meanwhile, no leader should depend on “the centre ground” as a reliable guide. “Centrists” do not agree on where they are, how they got there and where they need to turn next. They do not concur because there is no clearly defined terrain in politics marked “the centre ground”.

• Steve Richards is a political columnist and broadcaster. His most recent book is Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain from 1945 to Truss