Goodbye, David

Miliband Sr looks set to announce he’s quitting — and it’s the right thing to do.

Had David Miliband disowned the Iraq war during the summer-long Labour leadership campaign, he would now be leader of the Labour Party. I can't prove it, but, Nick-Robinson-style, I feel it in my "gut".

So it's rather ironic that the shadow foreign secretary, a prickly and insecure politician to begin with, and reeling from the shock of such a narrow defeat at the hands of his kid brother only 72 hours earlier, should choose the Iraq passage of Ed Miliband's conference speech to inadvertently reveal to the world his (understandable?) irritation and frustration at the current state of affairs. The clip from ITV News seems to show him saying, to a clapping Harriet Harman:

You voted for it, why are you clapping?

Bizarre. Did he not realise that journalists and photographers would be watching his every facial expression throughout the speech, to try and catch him looking unhappy? Here's a title for a future book: "Why do intelligent people do such stupid things?"

Harman's answer, however, is key:

I'm clapping because he is the leader, and as you know, I'm supporting him.

If Miliband decides to stay on in the shadow cabinet — and, like others, I doubt he will — he would have to internalise this rather crucial point. He is not leader. Ed is. Oh, and he got Iraq wrong, Ed (in private, if not in public) got it right.

But, the truth is, if he does decide to stay on, the media will spend the next five years looking for splits/divisions/rows between the two brothers. For the sake of Ed's leadership and the future of the Labour Party, this "giant", to quote my colleague James, has to walk away from the front bench and, I would assume, parliament, too. (Is there an IMF or EU position becoming vacant in the next year or two??)

On a side note, those of you who criticise journalists/columnists/bloggers for being ultra-cynical and suspicious about politicians and their various public statements and motives (eg, Jeremy Paxman's "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"), should pay attention to the David Miliband story.

Here is a politician who spent the entire campaign saying again and again that he had no plans to quit front-line politics, even if his brother beat him. He told me in an interview for the magazine, in mid-July:

I'm not walking away from the people of South Shields. I'm not walking away from the Labour Party . . . I'm very happy to serve under anyone.

And on the Politics Show on BBC1 three weeks ago, he mocked me as a journalist of "infinite impatience" for daring to suggest that he wouldn't be able to serve under his younger brother. Asked by me to give an explicit, on-air guarantee that he'd stay in the shadow cabinet under an Ed Miliband leadership, he said:

Of course. And I am absolutely clear about my intentions, my assumptions, and I answered that very, very clearly.

I guess we'll see if my journalistic cynicism (and impatience!) is vindicated at 5pm.

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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