Labour is the loser from this shameful affair

The irony is that it should have been a good week for Brown

It's no surprise that Gordon Brown remains leader of the Labour Party this morning. This was the third coup attempt against Brown and the most inept yet. As Steve Richards argues in the must-read column of the morning, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have inflicted terrible damage on the party, leaving Labour "the biggest victim".

The reason why the plot failed to prompt a cabinet resignation and attracted only minimal backbench support is that there remains no substantial evidence that Labour would fare better under an alternative leader. The polls show no popular enthusiasm for Harriet Harman, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.

The plot came in what should have been a good week for Brown. He turned in one of his best performances at PMQs, showing signs of the skill and wit that once made him a feared Commons opponent. He embarrassed David Cameron over his equivocations on marriage and tax, which forced the Tory leader to admit on the Today programme this morning that he had "messed up".

And now a new Sun/ICM poll shows Labour cutting the Tories' lead again, this time to 9 points, putting the party within reach of a hung parliament. The poll also confirms what we instinctively know: that Brown's removal would do little to boost Labour's ratings. Some 82 per cent of voters say it would either make no difference or encourage them to vote Labour if he stayed.

The lukewarm cabinet support for Brown confirms the alienation many ministers feel from his premiership, but there is a world of difference between discontent and outright rebellion. It was staggeringly naive of Hewitt and Hoon not to anticipate this reality.

Their intervention has gifted the Tories and Lib Dems the chance to argue again and again that Labour is a divided party at a time when the country needs a strong, united government. It may be a cliché to say that the electorate hates divided governments but, as Peter Riddell reminds us this morning, it is true. Hewitt and Hoon have done more damage to Labour in a day than Cameron could have hoped to achieve all month.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.