Keir Starmer is more dangerous than Blair ever was

Tony Blair and Keir Starmer
Tony Blair and Keir Starmer

Politics can be a frustrating business. MPs and Ministers have many sensible ideas about how to solve a whole range of challenges, whether that is how to reduce immigration, reform the NHS or boost economic growth. But, as I have witnessed first hand since I was elected in 2019, achieving meaningful change in any of these areas can be a painfully slow and difficult task.

To some extent, slow progress is an inevitability of democratic politics. Democracy may not be nimble, but as Churchill famously said, it is an improvement on all other forms of government. But the British state has not always been so unwieldy as it is now. The speed and scale of the reforms of the 1980s seem completely unachievable just forty years on. Of course, Thatcher was an extraordinarily determined leader, but she did not face such intense bureaucratic opposition to her plans as Conservative Ministers experience today.

The principal cause of this furring of the institutional arteries was Tony Blair’s programme of legislative reform. From 1997, Blair and his allies remade the British state in their own image. Power and agency were taken from Parliament and the people and handed over to courts, arms-length bodies, technocrats and civil servants. These acts of constitutional vandalism changed Britain profoundly and have made it markedly more difficult for today’s politicians to resolve some of our country’s most pressing challenges.

Take illegal immigration, an issue that has plagued this Conservative administration. Despite significant efforts including Acts of Parliament and millions of pounds spent on small boat deterrence, the Supreme Court ruled last year that the Government’s Rwanda scheme was “unlawful”. Blair’s decision to embed the European Convention on Human Rights in UK domestic law gave the courts extraordinary power; power in fact to frustrate the will of our elected Parliament.

Or consider the detrimental impact of eye watering house prices on the cost of living. Recent high levels of immigration have put pressure on housing supply, but prices first began to soar in the late 1990s, when Blair gave the Bank of England independence and low interest rates flooded the market with cheap money. The Bank has made many other errors since independence, including more recently losing billions of pounds of taxpayer money selling bonds at a loss. The public holds politicians rather than the Bank of England responsible for the state of our economy; yet Blair’s reforms stripped elected ministers of many of the levers required to effect change.

Or take the consequences of the 2010 Equality Act. This legislation embedded radical ideologies into our institutions to such an extent that for some in the public sector it has become a sackable offence to state that men can’t become women. It is hugely frustrating that the Conservatives have not been able to rid our public institutions of “wokeism”, but Blairite legislation has tied the hands of the Government such that any bold action could be challenged in court.

Blair seemed driven by a desire to drain power away from Parliament. Politicians are no better or worse than anyone else, but at least they are accountable. When control of the machinery of state is hived off to unelected technocrats, institutions begin to act in their own interests rather than for the benefit of the people.

It’s true that the Conservative Party has had 14 years to repeal Blairite legislation. But fair-minded voters will acknowledge that such reforms would not have been politically possible in coalition, nor practically achievable alongside Brexit, nor a priority during the pandemic. However, the great irony is that because the Conservatives have been unable to roll back New Labour reforms, Starmer may now get the chance to pick up where Blair left off. The Labour Party has already indicated that it would introduce a new Race Equality Act, beef up the Office for Budget Responsibility and make it easier to change gender. A Labour “supermajority” could vandalise our constitution so irreversibly that no future centre-right government could turn back the clock.

I understand the frustrations of many Conservative voters who want to punish my Party by voting for Reform or not voting at all. Some will say that our Manifesto commitments – sensible and conservative as they are – are too little too late. But be careful what you wish for. Next time around, there may be nothing left for conservatives to conserve.