Peter Hain confirms shadow cabinet exit

What does this mean for Labour's frontbench?

After rumours over the weekend and before, Peter Hain has confirmed that he will step down at shadow Welsh secretary. In a letter to the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, the 62 year old said he plans to stay on as an MP, fighting Neath again at the next election.

The veteran MP, who informed Miliband of his plan to step down before Christmas, stayed in his post to contest this month’s local elections. He wrote that the “thumping victory” in Wales provided a good opportunity to step aside.

Hain, who served as a cabinet minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said that he would not rule out a return to frontbench politics if offered something in the future. For now, he plans to campaign for the building of a Severn barrage.

What does this mean for Labour? The frontrunners to replace Hain are Owen Smith, Pontypridd MP and shadow treasury minister, Cardiff West MP Kevin Brennan, and Chris Bryant, MP for Rhonda.

Speculation is rife that Miliband could use this as the chance for a wider reshuffle of his frontbench. In today’s Guardian, Jackie Ashley discusses the possibilities:

Like Cameron, his big hitters are likely to stay where they are, though there will always be a yearning on the Blairite wing for his brother David to return to the top table. This would hugely strengthen the Labour team and would be worth the gossip and tension it might bring. Miliband could hardly move Ed Balls to make way for his brother, just as Balls feels he is starting to get a proper hearing for his growth policies, as Europe shifts daily. But if Miliband does want to shuffle his top players, then his brother at either health or education, or even home affairs or foreign affairs, would be good news.

That's up to David and his demons. It would make it easier for Ed Miliband to move another Blairite, Liam Byrne, who though bright and capable has irritated many in the party by looking too close to the Iain Duncan Smith welfare agenda, and whose enthusiasm to run in the now not happening Birmingham mayoral race suggests he isn't enjoying life in Planet Ed. Of the Labour successes, Chris Bryant and Kevin Brennan look near certs for promotion. The three best female newcomers – Rachel Reeves, Liz Kendall and Stella Creasy – could all do with an even higher profile.

How far Miliband chooses to go with the reshuffle remains to be seen -- and a return to the frontbench for David Miliband still seems unlikely. But regardless of Miliband family politics, this is a chance for the Labour leader to capitalise on recent successes in the polls (and recent Tory failings) with a reinvigorated team.
 

Peter Hain. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.