Why Ed Miliband has to be very, very careful

He’s having a good campaign for the Labour leadership -- but he shouldn’t get carried away.

There is a very interesting comment posted on James Macintyre's blog on last night's Labour leadership debate, hosted by the New Statesman:

Darren Canning
10 June 2010 at 04:15
Ed Miliband has to watch himself he doesn't turn the debate ugly. Right from his suporters waving placards and chanting as others arrived to his tone of voice and barbed comments during the debate his was the least comradely performance and left me feeling a little sick. We need a debate within the party not a war . . . been there, done that . . . wasn't any fun.

Darren has a semi-point. If Ed Miliband wants to win this race -- and he has showed steely ruthlessness and ambition in standing against his own brother -- he has to be careful to avoid creating any impression of arrogance, overconfidence or entitlement.

Hubris is perhaps the biggest danger for a front-runner (just ask Hillary Clinton). So, like Darren, I did wonder why so many of Ed M's pre-assembled "fans" had to sing and shout so much outside a party leadership hustings (!) -- and that, too, as the other main candidates tried to enter the Church House conference centre in Dean's Yard. Team Ed even barracked Diane Abbott as the poor woman tried to do a filmed interview with Channel 4 News, making tits of themselves in the background of the shot.

In fact, I overheard one of Ed's rivals for the leadership whisper to another, as they both left the building last night: "Do you have a group of supporters coming to the next hustings? Perhaps we should all get one." Or perhaps not.

That said, I think Darren is wrong about Ed M's "tone of voice and barbed comments". At the start of the debate, I provocatively asked the younger Miliband what one quality he had but David M didn't have that perhaps motivated him to challenge his big brother. But Ed M wasn't having any of it. He would only sing David's praises (and, of course, his own).

In contrast, the former foreign secretary responded in a rather personal and "barbed" manner: "If I thought Ed would make a better leader of the opposition or a better prime minister, I'd be running his campaign." (Cue laughter from the crowd.) Ed did manage some rather humorous lines of his own on the night, including his response when Ed Balls went over his allocated time and delivered a particularly long answer: "It's like being back in the Treasury." (Balls didn't laugh, or even smile.)

Ed M also had every right, I think, to challenge David M (and Andy Burnham) on Iraq, and over the continuing refusal of the latter pair to acknowledge fully the catastrophic disaster of the war in Iraq, as well as the political fallout from it. Should Ed M (and Ed B) have spoken out earlier on Iraq? Yes. Does that mean they should be silent now? No, of course not.

But, overall, the psychological drama playing out during this fascinating leadership contest, with all its Shakespearean undertones and incessant Cain-and-Abel references, is unprecedented. Never have two brothers slugged it out for the leadership of a British political party. It is rather odd, to say the least. Let me be honest: if my younger brother stood against me for the leadership of the Labour Party I'd be full of resentment, if not hatred, towards him. Perhaps that's just me and my oversized ego.

Then again, judging by David's facial contortions -- from eyeball-rolling to eyebrow-raising to exasperated head-shaking -- during Ed M's comments and answers over the course of the evening, perhaps big brother isn't feeling as charitable or loving towards little brother as he likes to claim. I wouldn't blame him. I suspect that Ed -- with his articulate, passionate and eloquent pitch to the party's left, on Iraq, on the banks, on a cheaper alternative to Trident, on the 50p tax rate, on the living wage -- is now the man to beat.

In both his opening and his closing statements, Ed Miliband rightly referred to the need to move "beyond Brown and Blair". Of the three front-runners -- Ed M, David M and Ed Balls -- he has the greatest chance of doing so. But it is a long campaign, and he has yet to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he has the mettle, judgement and charisma for the top job; in other words, that he is a prime-minister-in-waiting.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.