Alan Johnson isn’t going to be the next Labour leader

The reports and rumours swirling around the Westminster village are ridiculous.

Left Foot Forward's Will Straw had a very interesting piece on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site a couple of weeks of ago:

The hysteria about Ed Miliband's leadership has revealed a truth about modern politics. Unless a leader is riding 20 points high in the polls, speculation will mount about their fitness for the job. The attention deficit disorder of the media and political class has delivered ten party leaders (including caretakers) in the last five years.

That, my friends, is a startling stat (the full list: Michael Howard, David Cameron, Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell, Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband). He went on:

Never mind that Miliband is only eight weeks into the job. Never mind that the timing of his paternity leave came during an unfortunately busy period. Never mind that Labour is robustly above 40 per cent in the polls with a lead as wide as 5 points recorded in one. And never mind that Miliband's net approval rating at +9 is ahead of where David Cameron was at this stage in his leadership.

Yep, "never mind" indeed. The navel-gazers in the PLP and the hysteria-mongers in the lobby would rather obsess over and gossip about the supposed "fallout" for Miliband's leadership from a single Today programme interview and a lacklustre performance at last week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Meanwhile, Miliband's shadow chancellor, the plain-speaking ex-postie Alan Johnson, continues his one-man campaign to undermine the Labour leader who placed such faith and hope in him. I wrote in a recent column in the magazine:

There are divisions inside the shadow cabinet but these can be exaggerated. I'm told that the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, has offered "private assurances" to the Labour leader that he was not "stirring things up" with his recent comments on the 50p tax rate.

I had been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt; I like him as a person and admire him as a politician, even if he and I do disagree on civil liberties, the 50p tax, tuition fees, etc. But his comments to Mary Riddell in yesterday's Telegraph had me groaning and must have had Ed M tearing his hair out:

"The fact that no one's introduced a graduate tax doesn't mean it can't be done."

But he doesn't think it possible? "Well, I don't think it could [work]. Frankly, there's a difference of view."

Here is the most senior member of the shadow cabinet pooh-poohing a signature policy advocated by the leader of the party: "I don't think it could [work]." That's just great (!)

As even the Spectator's James Forsyth pointed out:

Johnson is abusing the trust placed in him: he's a canny enough politician to know how all these interviews are going to play. Ed Miliband deserves better, much better from his shadow chancellor.

I agree. I note that Johnson says in the Telegraph interview, when asked by Mary Riddell if he has been "slapped down" by Miliband:

No. That is the mark of the man.

Perhaps Ed M needs to start doing some "slapping". If he's not worried by his shadow chancellor's rather vocal "differences of opinion" on two key policies (50p income tax and graduate tax), then he should be worried by the supposed scoop in today's Mail on Sunday:

Alan Johnson is being urged by his supporters to "ready himself" to replace Ed Miliband if the Labour leader succumbs to the growing crisis surrounding the party.

The dhadow chancellor is already being talked up as a stand-in leader – less than three months after Mr Miliband won a bitter battle with his brother David for the party crown.

So why should he be worried? Not because the story is true; it isn't. The source of the "ready himself" quote is unclear and those of us who have spoken to Johnson recognise that he has no desire to be the next leader of the Labour Party. Indeed, the former home secretary had ample opportunity to stand for leader – against both Gordon Brown and, over the summer, both Miliband brothers. He was urged to do so by Labour MPs, activists and the commentariat. But he didn't. Like Jon Cruddas, he lacks the killer instinct, the leadership ambition.

But the problem for Miliband is that such stories will become more and more frequent in the coming days and weeks, and will harden the narrative of a "split" between the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor, making Johnson appear more rebellious and divisive than – to be fair! – he actually is.

Meanwhile, I note that the Mail on Sunday's Glen Owen went wandering through the Commons tea rooms and dining rooms looking for the Blairite "usual suspects" and – surprise, surprise! – found them:

One prominent Labour backbencher bluntly described Mr Miliband as "f****** useless", while another said the parliamentary party was "completely demoralised".

He added that because Mr Miliband had won the leadership with union votes and did not have a majority of his MPs behind him, there was little appetite to rally round.

"Members of the shadow cabinet are being openly critical in the tea rooms," he said.

"Everyone thinks that Johnson would make a far better leader, but he is stopping short of saying he wants to do it."

A Labour peer was equally damning: "Ed is a student politician, and that is all he will ever be."

Yawn. There's the usual claim that Miliband does "not have a majority of his MPs behind him" and that there is therefore "little appetite to rally round", while omitting to mention the fact that: a) Mili-E won the support of 122 Labour MPs, and b) of the 140 MPs who backed his brother, a big chunk of them put Ed M down as their second preference. He is far from isolated inside the PLP. In fact, the only thing missing from this predictable Sunday-political piece is the now-regular discussion of Brother David's manoeuvring and Mili-D's much-mentioned "lunching" of national newspaper editors in recent weeks.

But, I mean, let's assume Ed M was "got rid" of by rebellious, right-wing MPs, rather than, say, run over by a bus. Would the Labour Party really turn to the other Miliband for leadership in such a scenario? How would MPs explain such a move to the electorate and the media? Wouldn't it just be weird to have David M replace Ed M in a coup, or some such divisive and traumatic event, after Ed M beat David M fair and square in the leadership election only two months ago? Isn't it time for David M, "Labour's lost leader", to accept that he, ahem, lost?

And, frankly, isn't it time for the Mili-D ally Alan Johnson to get on board the Ed Miliband Express? According to Westminster's conventional wisdom, Ed Miliband had to appointJohnson as shadow chancellor, rather than Ed Balls, despite the latter's superior qualifications and credentials, because Johnson would help Ed M unite the shadow cabinet while Balls would have undermined Miliband's leadership. That is to say Johnson would be loyal, Balls disloyal. The exact reverse, of course, has happened.

Perhaps, from now on, Johnson should keep his disagreements with his leader over policy issues to himself and focus his energies on attacking the coalition. I, for one, was deeply disappointed to see the shadow chancellor and his team refuse to comment on last week's WikiLeaks revelations about Mervyn King's outrageous intervention in the party-political debate over deficit reduction. It was left to the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, and the backbencher Tristram Hunt to point out that the Bank of England governor's independence had been "called into question" and that he "needs to take great care".

Can you imagine what Ed Balls would have said? Oh well . . .

 

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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.