Today's comment: Toynbee's Cromwellian rhetoric

Polly turns on Brown

Yesterday I noted that Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley once one of Gordon Brown’s biggest press supporters, had turned against him, and speculated that her colleague Polly Toynbee might follow suit. Today she does.

Providing no room for ambiguity, Toynbee declares, “Gordon Brown has been tested and found in want of almost every attribute a leader needs.” While Ashley predicted a summer putsch, Toynbee advocates one. She urges a delegation of MPs to march to Downing Street on 5 June, the day after the local elections, and force Brown out.

“Plot it now, do it fast,” she says. And by the end as she declares, “Ordinary party members, you valiant few, get up and tell your MPs that Gordon Brown must go.”, she almost threatens to break into Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Like Ashley, Toynbee alights upon the amiable figure of Alan Johnson as the natural replacement for Brown. “Orphan boy, genial postman, self-made, clever but modest, he has the grace and charm to match his perfect backstory,” she says.

“I doubt that he can win for Labour. But, goodness knows, Cameron is still there for the taking.”

Speaker Martin under fire

Elsewhere, the Daily Mail’s Peter Oborne is also concerned with forcing a Scotsman out of office -the Commons Speaker Michael Martin. Outraged at Martin’s failure to unambiguously apologise for the expenses scandal and his decision to involve the police in investigating the leaks, Oborne declares: “Martin has been at the apex of the culture of deceit and downright fraud which has destroyed the once luminous reputation of the British parliament.”

He accuses the Speaker of presiding over “wholesale larceny” and argues venomously: “reform is utterly impossible while this arrogant and greedy man remains in office”.

Although the Guardian’s imperishable sketch writer Simon Hoggart doubts that Martin will be forced out.

“Gordon Brown will stay loyal to a fellow Labour Scot, and the Tories don't want a new Speaker chosen before they have a majority,” he notes.

Expenses furore

Back on expenses, David Aaronovitch in the Times lays the blame for the absence of reform on: “a public that becomes intoxicated by its own outrage that wants democracy but doesn't want to pay for it and whose preferred form of political engagement is tossing the rattle out of the pram.” He suggests the public would not tolerate the increase in MPs pay required to streamline the bloated claims system.

Elsewhere, the Financial Times’s chief political commentator Philip Stephens writes that the furore over expenses masks longer-term and far more corrosive problems.

He warns of “a style of politics that squeezes out local participation by centralising power at Westminster; to parties whose outlooks are locked in the tribal divisions of the early 20th century; and, dare one say it, to a media that ignores serious political argument and amplifies personal frailties.” The expenses scandal is in many ways a superficial reflection of these underlying defects, he suggests.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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