Will Brown face one last rebellion?

Rebels explore the "Aznar option"

Barry Sheerman, once described as the leader of Labour's internal opposition, is at it again in the Independent today, calling for Gordon Brown to resign. He writes:

No one would wish to underrate the significant contribution that Gordon Brown has made to our nation's politics. We all understand that, at heart, he wants the very best for Britain. However, now is the time for those around him who also care about our country's future to convince him that it is time for him to make way for a new leader.

Sheerman's intervention follows that of Charles Clarke, who in a typically robust article on Wednesday declared:

All the evidence suggests that Brown's leadership reduces Labour support, that alternative leaders would improve our ratings, and that an election determined by voters' answers to the question "Do you want Gordon Brown to be Prime Minister for the next five years?" would further shrink Labour support.

The psephological case against Brown is a strong one. No prime minister has been as unpopular as him and gone on to win the subsequent election. A recent Times leader revealed that Philip Gould has told the cabinet that Labour could win only if it replaced Brown.

This said, I'm rather sceptical of polls showing that Labour would do better under almost any alternative leader. To most voters, Harriet Harman and David Miliband are mere names. They don't know enough to dislike them.

The latest idea canvassed by the rebels is the so-called "Aznar option". Under this scenario, Brown, like the former Spanish premier, would remain Prime Minister until the election but Labour would elect a new leader to fight the campaign.

Matthew Taylor, who first explored the possibility back in August, points out:

In this way the internal contest within the party for its next leader is not about foisting a new prime minister on the country, but about choosing someone about whom the voters can make up their own mind.

The main stumbling block to any rebellion remains the absence of a definitive, Heseltine-type challenger to Brown. This is something of a pity, as the narrowing of the polls may actually strengthen the case for replacing Brown. In a hung parliament, a pluralist figure such as David Miliband would be far more likely to cut a deal with Nick Clegg than the tribal Brown.

History suggests that Sheerman and Clarke aren't likely to rouse a rebellion, but I'd be surprised if large parts of the PLP aren't considering all options as we enter 2010.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.