Shadow cabinet fact-finding missions across the pond

Recess has allowed a few key figures the chance to attend the US conventions.

One of the very few consolations of political opposition is the time it affords to think. The pace of government often precludes development of new ideas and dispassionate pondering of the situation. The point at which ministers tend to get a new perspective on things usually coincides with the moment they are sacked. Hence the quaint convention of the "summer reading list" - the titles that it is recommended MPs read by the pool in their precious few weeks of leisure: a new biography of an eminent Victorian; a book by an American neuroscientist promising a revolution in economics and society encapsulated in a single abstract noun (e.g. Banality: Why Saying Nothing is the New Everything); the much-praised diaries of a witty but ultimately unsuccessful politician, recently retired or deceased.

But the real hardcore do not satisfy themselves with reading books about politics and economics on their summer holidays. Oh no. The truly dedicated take the opportunity, when things get quiet at Westminster, to immerse themselves in other countries' politics. Lord Steward Wood, one of Ed Miliband's closest advisors and a highly influential figure in the shadow cabinet, is currently at the Republican Party National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He is also going to the Democratic Party gathering next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also at that jamboree will be Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary.

America has always had a unique hold on the imaginations of British politicians and the current generation at the top of the Labour party have all passed through US colleges. Ed Miliband took a sabbatical from his time in Gordon Brown's treasury to teach at Harvard. Ed Balls was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard after graduating from Oxford. Douglas Alexander studied for a year at the University of Pennsylvania - and worked on Michael Dukakis's failed bid for the White House.

It isn't yet clear what Labour's top brass hope to learn from sitting in the stands in the opening rounds of this year's presidential election. There isn't any doubt about which side Miliband will be rooting for. (The same cannot be said for David Cameron - as I noted here.)

The tone and structure of American political debate seems ever more removed from the kind of discourse that works in Westminster. The macroeconomic dividing lines about debt, deficit and stimulus are not dissimilar; the deep lagoons of culture war venom are wholly alien. But then the main reason top British opposition politicians go to visit US political conventions is pretty simple: because it is great theatre, because it is fascinating and because - unburdened by government jobs - they can.

Ed Miliband meeting Barack Obama in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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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.