Will it be Mili-D? Or will it be Ed B?

Labour’s future revolves around a soap opera involving two political families.

I've been here at the Labour party conference in Manchester for less than 24 hours and yet I have to agree with the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow when he says that only two questions dominate the conversation right now:

  1. Will David Miliband stay in the shadow cabinet?
  2. Who will be the next shadow chancellor?

In previous columns and blogposts, I've speculated about David M's future, too. I suspect he is waiting till 5pm on Wednesday (the deadline for shadow cabinet nominations) because he wants to see if the party will beg him to stay on and serve on the front bench.

But can someone as confident (arrogant?) as the elder Miliband serve under his kid brother? "I really wonder if he'll be able to do it and whether he'll actually stick around," a close friend and supporter of his in the Parliamentary Labour Party told me last week. There was a pained look on the MP's face.

If he does "stick around", what does he do? Is there any other job for him, shadow chancellor aside? Will he want to stay on as shadow foreign secretary, having already done the foreign sec job in government for the past three years? Won't it be odd to have two brothers in the top two jobs in the shadow cabinet?

And is there, as the FT asks on its front page, a split between the brothers on the deficit, with DM backing Alistair Darling's halve-the-deficit-in-four-years plan while EM sees it only as a "starting point"? Or will Ed M go with Ed B, despite the silly claims from commentators that the latter "won't give Labour economic credibility". Really? Even though his position on deficit reduction is backed by Nobel-Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, the FT's Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan, and even the IMF?

I discuss the shadow cabinet elections in my column in the magazine this week, and I also make the case for Ed Balls to be the next shadow chancellor. I suspect David Miliband will wait a few months (a year?) before quitting front-line politics and going off to take a high-profile, high-paid job on the international circuit (EU, IMF, World Bank, UN, etc) because, in the words of a shadow cabinet colleague of his, "If he quits now, it'll look like he's throwing his toys out of the pram."

But if he does ask for, and get, the shadow chancellor's job from his brother, then that means David Miliband is in for the long haul, because Labour cannot afford to switch shadow chancellors in the middle of this cuts-ridden, economy-focused parliament. If he's not signed up for a full term, then I'd suggest Ed Mili create a new and nebulous position for him in the short-to-medium term -- perhaps "shadow deputy prime minister", facing off against Nick Clegg each week in the Commons, taking on the constitutional reform brief and helping formulate Labour's position on the Alternative Vote and the May 2011 referendum campaign. As I've said, I'd prefer that the shadow chancellor job go to the bullish Balls.

Now, others in the left/Labour blogosphere -- Will Straw, Sunder Katwala, et cetera -- suspect Yvette Cooper may be the best alternative to both Balls and the elder Miliband as shadow chancellor. She is a trained economist like her husband, but has fewer enemies than he does. (Plus, she is a woman and feisty, too . . .)

With Ed Miliband as leader, and the shadow chancellor's post expected to go to David Miliband, or Ed Balls, or Yvette Cooper, the future of the two biggest jobs in the Labour Party has become part of a "soap opera" (to borrow a phrase from Mili-D) revolving around two families: the Miliband brothers and the Balls-Cooper husband-and-wife.

Weird, eh?

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.