Andrew Adonis has not defected to the Conservatives but, as he’ll know, it will look an awful lot like he has. As tomorrow’s newspapers reveal, Lord Adonis is to give up the Labour whip to become a crossbench peer in order to chair a new National Infrastructure Commission. To allow this announcement to be made by George Osborne, and at Tory conference, is quite something. It is, in effect, allowing the Chancellor to present his recruitment as Tory coup.
So Osborne gets the drama, but at a cost. The idea of a National Infrastructure Commission is a Labour policy, championed by Ed Miliband last year. Adonis was keen on all of this, and advocated about it in the House of Lords in January. And then Ed Balls was promoting it afterwards. Throughout, Osborne showed no interest, even when Miliband was trying to make it a cross party idea. Just as with the £8 minimum wage, he lost the election but won the argument.
Is this part of why Osborne’s government was doing anyway? Of course not: I understand that even relevant ministers are tonight surprised that this is going ahead. But, they say, it may not matter much: after all, what’s in a commission? Adonis clearly doesn’t see it that way: he will know the value of the political theatre that he has just sold to Osborne. And he’s just too smart to be conned. He’ll have extracted a decent price.
So who’s using whom? The story tonight is about Osborne “poaching” – but you can see why Adonis is relaxed. Just look, he’ll think, at what these unimaginative Tories do when they have a majority! They’re still nicking Labour policies! First the Living Wage, next the National Infrastructure Commission. Adonis won’t mind: as Reagan said, it’s amazing what you can achieve in politics if you don’t care who gets the credit. And if Osborne wants credit for implementing a Labour policy – well, Adonis will think, go ahead. (The Times first edition splash headline, right, may have to be changed for later editions. Adonis has resigned the whip, but he hasn’t quit the party – he’s keeping his Labour membership. The struggle takes many forms.)
Osborne is thinking about positioning, not policies. He is, wisely, out to win Labout votes and aching to present the Tories as occupying the central ground where New Labour once stood.
I’m a huge fan of Adonis’s work on schools, but I have to confess I’m not so impressed with his thoughts on infrastructure. He shares the Chancellor’s expensive weakness for big toys. It was his bright idea to blow what little infrastructure money this country will have on HS2, which will – if it’s ever built – be a massive white elephant, sucking much-needed money investment from the rest of the transport network. Adonis is keen on HS3 and more besides. And if Osborne has said that he’ll heed the Adonis commission – on rail, nuclear power and more – then this means that a Labour Party member will be writing significant chunks of government policy. So it is as much a coup for Labour as for the Tories.
But anyway, Osborne has found his conference surprise. We’ll see, in time, how much he’s had to pay for it.