Time for Ed Miliband to speak up on child benefit

Labour's new leader needs to start as he means to go on and highlight the flaws in Osborne's rationa

As today's frontpages demonstrate, George Osborne's announcement yesterday that the coalition will be withdrawing universal child benefit has provoked concern and controversy across the political spectrum.

For a newly-elected leader of the opposition, this was surely a great opportunity to get stuck into the counter-arguments and start as strongly as you mean to go on. Add to this the fact that Ed Miliband has long been an advocate of maintaining universal benefits as far as possible. In September 2009, when interviewed by the BBC in his role as Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, he emphasised the importance of a mix of universal and targeted welfare, saying:

"Lots of families need the support that child benefit provides, not just the poorest."

A year on, on The Andrew Marr Show a few weeks ago, he said he didn't support reopening the issue of universal benefits, saying that means testing has "real problems", going on to say:

"I'm all for speaking hard truths. I don't personally think undermining the universal welfare state is the right thing to do."

Why, then, has Ed been so conspicuously absent from the debate since Osborne's speech yesterday?

Yvette Cooper is the only Labour figure who has made it into the coverage today in her capacity as shadow work and pensions secretary, which incidentally can't be doing her profile as a potential shadow chancellor any home. Most of the major papers feature a version of the following quote from her:

"The Government's unfair attack on child benefit is now unravelling. The Chancellor only announced means testing this morning, and already the Children's Minister has admitted that the thresholds need to be looked at again. They have clearly been taken aback by the reaction of parents across the country."

It could well be, as Iain Martin has suggested, that Labour are choosing to stand back and let the Tories face the not inconsiderable opposition from their own party, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others, before weighing in with their own defence of universal benefits, and universal child benefit in particular.

But it is now over 24 hours since Osborne's announcement, and Ed's silence is starting to seem less strategic, and more hesitant. There are intelligent and substantive counter-arguments to be made to this cut, as Nicola Smith demonstrated yesterday on Left Foot Forward. This is a big opportunity for him to make a real statement about the kind of leader of the opposition he is going to be, and to set the tone for how Labour are going to respond to the spending review in a few weeks' time. During the summer's hustings, he spoke often about the hard work Labour need to do to get back in power -- now it's time to lead by example and start doing it.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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