A bold vision?

The talk at conference, a desire to hear a bold vision from Gordon Brown and Charles Clarke's curren

The New Statesman party is usually the first big event of Labour's annual conference and you can get quite a sense of how the week may pan out.

This time Charles Clarke was an early arrival keen to spread the word about his Sunday Times article in which he cheered on the idea of a leadership contest.

Clarke's not a popular figure in Manchester just now - neither with delegates nor senior party figures. Leave aside John Prescott's attack branding the former home secretary a "bitterite". One senior Labour figure told me that they could neither understand what had happened to Clarke - nor what he thought he was playing at.

"He's been there right at the centre of things for years and now look at him. What's he think he's doing?" they asked angrily.

I've been going to these conferences for nearly a decade and this is an odd one. Especially if you think back just a year. Then the atmosphere at the NS bash was feverish as we all speculated about a snap election.

It was virtually the only conversation. How things change and the talk now is whether Gordon Brown can survive.

Curiously it may be that fears over the economy are his best allies just now. It would be rash to trust either David Cameron or George Osborne with such a challenging situation. This needs more than a background in PR or the enthusiastic efforts of a former chorister - actually I don't know that about George but it just seems to fit.

After the NS party I went back into the security zone. Alistair Darling was having a drink with Neil Kinnock in one of the hotel bars and the Unite union bash was in full swing.

Some people at least seemed to be trying to have a good time and most seemed agreed that the prime minister is liable to come out of conference stronger than he went in. After that it will depend on what sort of direction he can give his party - and his government.

If nothing else it's time to shine the light on the Tories and their superficial transformation.

David Miliband does that writing on our conference blog. The foreign secretary pours scorn on Lexus Dave's progressive pretentions and insists Labour can win the next election. But it needs to set out a bold vision.

"The Tories now claim to agree with our goals. But David Cameron says that “progressive ends will best be met through conservative means.” And that is the new con, in Cameron’s conservatives. You cannot deliver progressive ends by Tory isolationism from Europe and Tory anti-statism."

In the meantime everyone is looking to see just what Brown's bold vision is.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.