'Whatever works': a New Labour mantra worth saving

There are tentative signs that ministers may now be genuinely neutral between public and private

The most important section of James Purnell's piece in today's Guardian concerns the delivery of public services. From its inception onwards, New Labour claimed to be ideologically neutral over the public and private sectors; 'whatever works' was its mantra. But in practice, Tony Blair allowed reform to become synonymous with privatisation. Purnell suggests he's now prepared to reconsider this disastrous approach. He writes:

Once we're clearer about our goals, we will be forced to be bolder about our methods. So, if allowing state schools to be run by profit-making companies encourages equality of capability, we will have to allow it. If educational selection by religion increases inequality, we will have to start a difficult debate about it. If child poverty wrecks any possibility of equality of capability, then we will have to make abolishing it our top priority.

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to cite a passage in which Purnell appears to advocate greater use of the private sector in education but it's the pragmatism that counts.

New Labour's fetishisation of the private sector made it no better than those socialists who supported public ownership not on practical grounds, but because they believed each successive nationalisation brought them one step closer to a socialist Valhalla. There are now tentative signs that the humiliation of big finance and the nationalisation of swathes of the banking sector has freed Blairite ministers up to be genuinely neutral between public and private.

In his interview with my colleague James Macintyre earlier this month, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who is usually dismissed as a free-market fundamentalist, said he wished Labour could have pulled the plug on rail privatisation in the mid-1990s. He also described the nationalisation of the East Coast Main Line as a "pragmatic" step. And why should it have been anything else? There is now no justification for supporting either the public or the private sector on anything other than pragmatic grounds.

If more ministers can follow Purnell and Adonis, then 'whatever works' will be one piece of New Labour wisdom worth salvaging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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