The Tories' attack on the unions lacks credibility

The Conservative claim that Unite has taken over the Labour Party is absurd.

Here is the new poster the Conservatives have just released, attacking Labour's financial links with Britain's largest trade union, Unite.

It's part of a fierce assault on the union this morning, with the Tories also launching an attack document on the subject and Michael Gove delivering a speech on "Charlie Whelan's new militant tendency".

Brown poster

The Tories aren't wrong to point out Labour's increasing financial dependency on the unions. Last year unions were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party, with Unite alone accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). But isn't this all rather nauseating, coming from a party that for so many years was sustained by the non-domiciled Michael Ashcroft?

As I've argued before, there is no comparison between the donations Labour receives from Unite's political fund (to which nearly 1.3 million members voluntarily contribute) and the millions the Tories receive from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer.

Gove's claim that Labour's political strategy is now dictated by the unions isn't much more convincing. Here's a key passage:

Class warfare has not only been resurrected; it has been elevated to holy principle, used in every possible circumstance including, most famously, in vicious, aggressive and direct attacks from a prime minister who purports to govern in the national interest.

His description of Gordon Brown's rather amusing joke about "the playing fields of Eton" as "vicious, aggressive and direct" is absurd and delusional.

The party's decision to list the 108 MPs who belong to Unite, as if this proves that the party has been infiltrated by a hard-left sect, is equally laughable. It ignores that almost every Labour MP is obliged to belong to a union (after all, the party was founded by them).

Thus, ludicrously, Alan Milburn is at once "outed" as a member of Unite, while also being cited by Gove as a New Labour reformer who has quit parliament in horror at the rise of the unions.

But the Tories, for whom the looming British Airways strike is a political gift, aren't concerned with such objections: they've got an election to win. And today, buoyed by the latest polls and the European Commission's criticism of the government's deficit strategy, they've put Labour on the back foot for the first time in weeks.

Labour should respond not only by pointing out the contradictions I've outlined, but also by arguing that the Tories are rather more vulnerable to the charge of offering policies for cash.

As my colleague James Macintyre pointed out last year, a number of major Tory donors stand to gain more than £500,000 each from Cameron's plan to slash inheritance tax. Labour now needs to go on the attack -- and soon.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.