Does Labour now fear Boris more than Cameron?

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour.

"I think the biggest threat to our chances now is …" I eagerly awaited the conclusion to this sentence uttered in a conversation earlier this week with a senior figure in the Labour Party. This is someone who, not surprisingly given the coalition’s travails, is very upbeat about Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming Prime Minister. (He referred to "when" rather than "if" it happens, which is a new development in the tone around the shadow cabinet.)

So what would that threat be? Ongoing doubts about the party’s fiscal credibility? Lack of a clear narrative on what to do with public services? A divisive row with the Unions over how reconciled the party should be with the cuts it will inherit?

"… Boris," he said. This surprised me. I’m a bit of a Boris-sceptic, thinking much of the cheerleading on his behlaf is an expression of Tory frustration with Cameron, rather than a serious movement to get the London Mayor promoted to the job of Prime Minister any time soon. But the case was persuasively made. Everything that is now being said about his unsuitability for the top job and the unlikelihood of it actually happening was once said about his chances of being London mayor. He is, I was told, a real star who has managed his career well and, crucially, who animates people who don't usually care about politics. That is the Holy Grail in Westminster these days. The fact that he isn’t in parliament now and has another job? A minor hurdle, apparently. Once Tory MPs are convinced enough that Cameron is leading them to defeat their famously regicidal tempers will be fired and a way will be found.

I’m still not entirely persuaded but it is certainly revealing that Labour people are taking the prospect very seriously indeed. (My colleague George points out that Jacqui Smith, former Labour Home Secretary, has intervened in a fairly vigorous attempt to debunk the myth of Boris bonhomie.) It wasn’t that long ago that Labour people were actually rather enjoying Johnson’s not so secret campaign to undermine Cameron and Osborne. They may have hated the way he kept Labour out of City Hall but the prevailing feeling was that his function on the national stage was as a convenient thorn in the PM’s side - an enemy’s enemy and therefore kind of a friend. No longer.

I was reminded also of a conversation I had a while ago with one of Ed Miliband’s advisers about the issue of charisma and personal ratings, where Cameron still beats the Labour leader in opinion polls. Wouldn’t a presidential-style contest between the two men be a problem for Ed? The answer: that is the received wisdom, yes. But consider how much of a hit Cameron’s personal brand has already taken, how limited his power is in coalition, how much some his own MPs dislike him, how jaded his act will seem by 2015. Is it so hard to think that, by the next election, a presidential face-off would be something Miliband might even relish? I was deeply sceptical of that proposition at the time and most people I have shared it with (including pollsters) have looked puzzled or snorted in disbelief.

But to hear Tories talk about their own leader is a masterclass in disillusionment and pessimism. Sometimes they seem to do a better job of talking up Miliband’s chances than their Labour counterparts. Partly that is because Labour MPs are desperate not to sound complacent and because they have more of an insight into how brittle and unready the party machine is when it comes to the prospect of fighting an election. The Tories know their own weaknesses on that front too, of course.

The Labour high command certainly isn’t writing Cameron off. Far from it. The feeling I get from talking to Miliband’s closest aides is that they know Cameron still outpolls his party and remains a formidable politician  - "clearly he is still their strongest asset" – says one. The Tories, goes this view, would be crazy to change leader before the election. That remains a very remote possibility in any case. But something has definitely changed in the way Labour views their main opponent.  There is now someone in the wings they would want to take on even less.

The Mayor of London is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle