Miliband’s message

What I learned from Ed Miliband at last night’s <em>New Statesman</em> party.

Ed Miliband was on fine form at the New Statesman party last night, although he looked, understandably enough, a little bleary-eyed. He quipped that only three publications had supported him: "the People, the New Statesman and the Caledonian Mercury".

In his speech, he reaffirmed some of the main messages of his campaign and his first days as leader, notably the need for humility and the need to engage with young voters. And he repeated his promise (borrowed from David Cameron) to "support the coalition when they do the right thing and oppose them when they do the wrong thing".

His call to build a modern, "21st-century social democracy" sounded wonderfully ambitious at a time when even Sweden, that centre-left utopia, has turned right. But Miliband is the leader with the best chance of winning over the voters required to do so. The psephological reality is that Labour has lost five million voters since 1997, only a million of whom went to the Tories. The rest defected to the Lib Dems, or the Greens, or stopped voting at all. It will not win them by playing the same old Blairite tunes.

It is for this reason, as Tim Montgomerie argues in today's Times (£), that the right is foolish to underestimate the man it calls "Red Ed". He identifies Matthew d'Ancona's declaration that "on Saturday, David Cameron won the next general election" as the silliest thing written in reaction to Miliband's victory.

Labour's new leader starts from a base of 258 seats, more than the Tories had in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He needs to win no more than 30 seats to evict the coalition from Downing Street. The latest YouGov poll puts Labour just a point behind the Tories and it is likely to take the lead at some point this week. It took three years and the fuel strikes for a single poll to put the William Hague-led Conservative Party ahead of Labour.

But, as things stand, the right shows every sign of ignoring Lao Tzu's injunction to "know thy enemy".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.