Why John McDonnell should stand aside for Diane Abbott

It is Abbott who has the greater potential support.

The split between Diane Abbott and John McDonnell is reminiscent of the one between McDonnell and Michael Meacher in 2007. On that occasion, Meacher stood aside and endorsed McDonnell, although the latter still didn't make it on to the ballot paper.

Now, after McDonnell's ill-advised claim that he regrets not "asassinating Thatcher" (it was obviously a joke, but it showed why a lot of people don't take him seriously), there are calls for the Labour left-winger to stand aside to give Diane Abbott a chance of reaching 33 nominations.

Under Labour Party rules, MPs can nominate an alternative candidate if their original choice steps down before nominations close. As things stand, Abbott has eight nominations, while McDonnell has ten, though the former may pull ahead after yesterday's hustings (our own is tomorrow night). There are also six members of the Socialist Campaign Group who have yet to nominate a candidate and are likely to support either Abbott or McDonnell.

It may seem strange for McDonnell to be facing calls to stand aside. After all, with more confirmed support than Abbott, why shouldn't he be asking her to do the same?

But this argument ignores the fact that Abbott's potential support is greater than McDonnell's. There are a number of Labour MPs who would like to see a female candidate on the ballot but won't consider nominating Abbott until she has a realistic chance of proceeding to the next stage. By contrast, many Labour MPs consider McDonnell beyond the pale, due to past acts such as praising the IRA.

Abbott's presence in the contest would force the other candidates to engage with the sort of arguments on privatisation, Afghanistan and inequality that they have avoided for too long.

In an article last month McDonell wrote:

[I]f at the end of this fortnight my standing down would mean securing any woman on this ballot paper, or any black person, of course I will do so.

It may be time for him to do just that.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.