A few reflections on the Labour leadership Newsnight debate

Ed Miliband really wants the job.

I have been late to the party when it comes to last night's BBC Newsnight debate with the Labour leadership candidates, about which much has already been said, including on this blog.

So I'll stick to a few quick thoughts, ignoring questions of format and sticking instead to some of the comments made by candidates.

One of the most striking elements of the debate was the behaviour of Ed Miliband, who left no doubt at all that he is fighting, hard, to beat his own brother and win this contest. He said he wanted to be "prime minister" in his introduction and repeatedly attempted to interrupt David Miliband, on one occasion saying that Labour's fortunes were down to "more fundamental" issues than those which were being discussed. He seemed to have had a haircut, wore a smart pink tie, and peered straight into the camera, Nick Clegg-style, as much as he could.

David Miliband, perhaps the most consistently impressive candidate in the hustings, seemed a tiny bit subdued; perhaps he was simply given less airtime. But his pitch at the start, in which he outlined what is "real about me", was highly effective, as was his invoking the memory of Tony Crosland at the end.

The first question was about Gordon Brown, and it was striking that Ed Balls, supposedly the former prime minister's most loyal ally, was the most condemnatory, accusing him of having been proved "out of touch" in his encounter with Gillian Duffy. Both David Miliband, who critics assume was somehow disloyal to Brown, and Ed Miliband said it would be a "grave error" to blame Labour's election defeat on one moment of the campaign.

David Miliband said he didn't stand in 2007 "because I was not ready to be prime minister", but that "changing the leader" would not have been enough. The problems for the party, he said, went back to 2006, after which there wasn't a root-and-branch change of approach. He also pointedly hit out at "negative briefing".

Diane Abbott, for her part, tried to portray herself as "the people's candidate" as opposed to the "Westminster insider's candidate", but then emphasised that she had been in the Commons longer than anyone else on the platform, and knew Westminster well as a result.

Andy Burnham repeated his outsider pitch, and made a direct appeal to the unions, but the point of his candidacy may have still appeared a little unclear to the party if not the viewing public.

Depressingly, there was once again much discussion of immigration, with Burnham and Balls taking a tough line and the Milibands, while accepting it was "an issue on the doorstep", emphasising the "underlying issues" of housing and jobs. Abbott rightly said it would be a grave error to blame Labour's defeat on that issue.

But it was Ed Miliband who made the most controversial pitch, saying: "I don't see a contradiction between standing up for values and winning an election, because you can't have victory without values". Other candidates, including his brother David, may feel they too have values. But Ed is determined to portray himself as the "credible change candidate".

In this unpredictable leadership election, it remains to be seen whether he will overtake his authoritative brother.

Watch this space for my feature in this week's magazine on the background to David and Ed Miliband's fight for the leadership.

 

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.