Where next for Ed? Mehdi Hasan on a fraternal dispute

The Labour leader ended a bad January on a high - and then brother David intervened.

Ed Miliband had a bad, bad January - but ended on a high. Having fallen behind in the polls, been attacked by his guru, got his message mixed up on cuts and gaffed on Twitter, the final few days of the month saw him help force RBS chief executive Stephen Hester turn down his million-pound bonus and put Cameron on the defensive, and then put in a strong performance against the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Commons debate on Europe ("Ed Miliband was very good," admitted the frequently-critical Simon Hoggart) and at PMQs, on the first day of February, on the subjects of bank bonuses and NHS reform .

Attacking the bankers - over excessive bonuses, lack of transparency, failure to lend and the rest - has proved to be a boon for Ed M. Recent polls show Labour has slashed the Tories' 5-point lead and I suspect we'll continue to see a mild uptick in the party's poll rating in the coming days and weeks. Why? Because, in the current climate, left-populism works. The public wants the political elites to take on the financial elites. It's not rocket science - and I'm not sure how many times some of us have to make this rather simple and obvious point to a cautious Labour leadership.

In October 2010, for example, after Ed M failed to make any public comment whatsoever on a 55 per cent jump in pay for FTSE 100 executives, I wrote:

So, Ed, where are you? Still running from the "Red" tag? Let's be clear. There is nothing "red" about objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries. In fact, the public would be on your side if you did - polls show voters support a high pay commission and higher taxes on bonuses and object to the growing gap between rich and poor in modern Britain.

Eighteen months later, Ed M is starting to reap the rewards of "objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries". Here's political editor Joe Murphy in Monday's Evening Standard:

Ed Miliband has scored a big victory that will give his leadership a much-needed boost.

But Ed mustn't lose momentum on this issue - as he did on phone-hacking last summer, where he dropped the baton and allowed Cameron to kick the Murdoch/media reform issue into the long grass. The Labour leader has to own the issue of high pay - and keep banging on about it whenever he gets the chance. It isn't that hard, to be honest. For instance, why doesn't he come out loudly and publicly against the new bonus scheme being demanded by Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins, whose taxpayer-funded basic salary is already £560,000? Why doesn't he position himself at the head of a campaign to demand RBS refrains from paying out multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded bonuses to members of its investment banking division, as is expected to happen in the not-too-distant future?

Then there's the issue of the cuts and Labour's various contortions on the subject. As a must-read, myth-busting Guardian leader points out today:

After just one year of full-blown austerity, marked by student occupations and rioting, it is sobering to be reminded that 94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come, along with another 88% of the planned reductions to benefits.

Ed M mustn't panic. The cuts have yet to fully kick in - let's see how popular (and/or effective) austerity measures are in 12 or 18 months time. Now is not the time for mixed-messaging on spending cuts, or cutting and running, otherwise Labour won't be able to reap the electoral rewards of having opposed them once the public turns - and it will turn, mark my words - against slash-and-burn, austerity-obsessed, 1930s-style economics. After all, as David Blanchflower notes in this week's magazine, the "Osborne collapse" has well and truly begun.

It is unfashionable, I know, but I've never bought into the nonsensical line from the right-wing press that Ed Miliband can't win, won't win, will never be prime minister, blah blah blah. It isn't just that, as Lord Ashcroft of all people has pointed out, he coud get "close to 40 per cent of the vote [in 2015] without needing to get out of bed". It's much more than that: Ed, at his best, brightest and boldest, understands the issues that matter to the great British public (see "squeezed middle", high pay, vested interests, etc) and, from time to time, displays excellent political judgement (phone hacking, the Hester bonus, shadow cabinet elections, etc). It's too soon to write him off. Meanwhile, the past few days have shown how unpredictable and capricious modern British politics can be: against the odds, Ed has recovered after his awful start to the year.

So, will big brother David's intervention in this week's New Statesman harm him? It wasn't, as some have claimed, an out-and-out attack on his younger brother. Nonetheless, the elder Miliband clearly isn't happy about the direction of the Ed-led Labour Party, isn't afraid to let people know that he isn't happy and surely must have known how a febrile, splits-obsessed media pack would respond to his detailed, if somewhat dry, critique of the views not so much of Ed himself but one of Ed's chief supporters, Roy Hattersley - and, that too, five months after the latter's original article on social democracy appeared in Political Quarterly. (On a side note, and to be fair, it is worth pointing out that David does volunteer four positive and named references to Ed in his NS piece.)

I'm never quite sure what David's game-plan is; what it is that he wants. The Times's Sam Coates had the best line on Twitter:

All DM's old tricks - setting up straw men (Hattersley) to knock down, loyal and disloyal simultaneously, over-complicated. Why do it?

Indeed. Whatever your view of David's intervention, the timing is bad for Ed, coming as it does after his strong performances at PMQs and in the Commons debate on Europe.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is just an unlucky leader. Not according to Steve Richards, in today's Independent. Steve makes a counter-intuitive but powerful argument in his column:

David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader.

Yet, according to Steve:

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

He rightly concludes:

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

(On a related note, my colleague Rafael Behr makes the opposite case to Steve in this week's New Statesman cover story, entitled "Lucky Dave".)

 

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

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.