It’s extremely unfair of the Corbynistas in the Labour Party to accuse Andrew Adonis of being a Judas figure after his announcement that he’ll be moving to the Lords crossbenches. The Blairite peer’s decision to resign the Labour Party whip and lead a National Infrastructure Commission for George Osborne is entirely consistent with his previous political behaviour.
While he might not be a household name, Adonis’s influence on British politics over the past 20 years has been immense. His ideas about the future of British education are still hugely influential today, especially in the academies system, while he started a debate on British transport infrastructure that was long overdue.
It’s interesting to note that he’s managed to achieve this without gaining the same level of popular recognition of Jonathan Powell, for example, or Alistair Campbell. But you could argue that this is one of the keys to his success – while others have climbed the greasy pole and then fallen from grace, Adonis has remained consistently as a supporting actor, solidifying his position as part of the establishment along with his reputation as “a safe pair of hands”.
His position on the centre-left of British politics was partly shaped by his father, an immigrant and trade unionist of Greek-Cypriot background. But the young Adonis also read history at Oxford, where he demonstrated the ability to befriend people from a variety of different backgrounds and political allegiances. Later he worked as a journalist at both the Observer and Financial Times.
Having served as an SDP then Lib Dem councillor, Adonis was selected as a Liberal Democrat at a time when the party was arguably more left than Labour. He then switched to Labour where his political ideas and philosophy melded perfectly with the New Labour project that Blair, Brown and Mandelson were trying to construct. His role at the heart of British politics (although not necessarily always playing a central role) for more than a decade makes it easy to forget that he’s never been elected to any of the positions he’s held.
His job from Blair’s first election victory in 1997 as a member of the Number 10 policy unit (rising to had of the unit in 2001) was to try to provide a coherence of thought and intellectual rigour that the party at that time arguably lacked. Apart from throwing around buzz words like “the Third Way”, Labour had start to dispense with much of the ideology that had previously defined them, a process that would eventually lead to them becoming hallowed out. The unit acted as a vital source of policy as well as providing a way of sifting through the mountains of ideas supplied by other Labour-linked policy think-tanks.
Adonis’s elevation to the peerage – and then his government jobs, including minister of education and secretary for transport, allowed him to put these ideas into practice more easily. This was aided by the fact that he didn’t have to worry about re-election so could afford to offend. It also helped that he had Blair’s ear.
Under Gordon Brown, Adonis played an important part in convincing Blairite MPs that their viewpoint wasn’t being marginalised – and also to prop up the idea that this was a “government of all the talents” (as some dubbed it) whether inside or outside the House of Commons. The overarching theme of his life and career, then, is a focus on policy and the willingness to work with people from both ends of the political spectrum to help promote and implement it.
Perhaps the lasting legacy from his Labour government days will be the school academies system that was admired by many in the Conservative Party, including Michael Gove. Some, although not all, threads of Conservative thinking about education can be traced back to Adonis and his work in this area.
So this latest move is arguably a continuation of previous roles. It’s symbolic in the sense that the Conservative Party is trying to shift itself politically to appeal to many floating former New Labour voters.
Adonis’s decision is a sign that the Conservatives are trying to reach out to disaffected MPs and claim the centre ground. What’s more, by the sound of things he will be playing a very similar role as he did under Blair, providing evidence-based policy to a government that has on occasion seemed bereft of ideas and more driven by marketing than political conviction.
He now has to walk a tricky line between retaining his Labour Party convictions while delivering policy solutions for the Conservative government. Whether he can square this circle remains to be seen.