Claws out: five top 'PM under attack' quotes

Politicians say the nastiest things . . . about each other

It would be an absolute effing disaster if Gordon Brown was PM, and I'll do anything in my power to effing stop him.

So said the mystery minister to Nick Robinson in 2006. Now, the former defence secretary John Hutton has admitted that it was he, after intensive questioning on Eddie Mair's radio show. The confession came with the caveat that he has now changed his opinion: "I think he has been a tremendously hard-working man, who has really put his heart and soul into it."

Robinson, on his blog (which also has the full transcript of the Mair interview), says:

This is more than mere historical trivia. Hutton resigned from Brown's cabinet on the same day as James Purnell walked out calling for a change of leadership. Had Hutton backed Purnell's view -- or, indeed, publicly repeated any of his private views -- we would now in all probability have a different man leading the country.

But there is nothing wrong with a bit of historical trivia, I say, so here we go. You'd think politicians would behave with a little diplomacy. But whether it's members of their own party, or other heads of state, they are slating each other all over the place.

Here are my top five quotes about British PMs -- from other politicians. Please do share any other suggestions below.

1. Alas, poor Gordon. In a verbal echo of Hutton's comments, the former home secretary Charles Clarke used an article in the New Statesman last year to say that: "Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election". He doesn't mention Brown by name, but in case you were in any doubt, he goes on to describe "a deep and widely shared concern -- which does not derive from ideology -- that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are".

2. "What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray?" Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, made this delightful comment about our very own Maggie Thatcher during the February 1988 Brussels summit. Misogynistic? Naaah.

3. Although, that said, she's not so lovely herself. "I've got my teeth into him, and I'm not going to let go," said Thatcher of Edward Heath during the Tory leadership contest in 1975. Frightening stuff. She followed it up in 1979 when she was safely ensconced, with the cutting comment: "When I look at him and he looks at me, I don't feel that it is a man looking at a woman. More like a woman being looked at by another woman."

4a. "Yo, Blair." Oh, Dubbya. George W Bush was caught on tape at the G8 conference in 2006 using the casual greeting with Tony Blair -- evidence of that irksome special relationship. Suffice to say that the tabloids were not impressed.

b. On a more serious note, Blair got his fair share of criticism from within the party, too. In 2005, during the dispute over extending the detention of terror suspects to 90 days, Peter Kilfoyle, a former junior defence minister, said:

Any reality check should start at No 10. The Prime Minister is out of touch with his own party and both Houses. He can't keep playing the loyalty card. He said after the May election he had listened and learned. If he listened, he hasn't learned the right lessons.

5. And finally -- turning the tables. In 1993, the then prime minister, John Major, branded three unnamed cabinet ministers (thought to be Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Peter Lilley) "bastards". Good on him.

 

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

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.