Praise Ken Clarke could have done without

Reminders of 1993 European rescue will prove unhelpful.

In politics there are hostile and unhelpful interventions; friendly and helpful interventions. Sometimes, however, hostile interventions prove helpful and friendly interventions prove unhelpful.

Alan Milburn's description of the coalition's watered-down plan for the NHS as a "car crash" -- because it is not Blairite enough -- was undoubtedly hostile but is unlikely to do Nick Clegg and co any harm when it comes to Liberal Democrat grassroots. Similarly, Tony Blair's recent book-punting reappearance and his urging of Ed Miliband to stay the reforming course may not do the Labour leader much harm in the long run.

Today Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is the subject of praise he could probably do without. He's already under fire from the right of his party and from the mid-market tabloids for his apparently lily-livered approach to law and order, and now a Eurocrat from Luxembourg has just reminded everyone what fine European Clarke is, saving the continent's currency project from premature collapse in the early/mid-1990s.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the eurogroup and a veteran of nearly 100 EU summits, charts the intervention in the summer of 1993 when Clarke had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for just a few months. According to Juncker the European Monetary System (a precursor to the Euro) was in deep trouble and France was plotting to kick both Germany and Holland out of the system, when Clarke intervened.

Clarke came and organised [a] secret meeting. If you go, he told me, everything will collapse. You will never get this thing again. There will be no currency union. But I would like that we can join it one day

Today Europe isn't the politically divisive issue it often is for the Conservative Party but that doesn't mean it won't return as such. For example, there has been disquiet among Eurosceptic Tory MPs for six months over David Cameron's offers to bailout out single currency countries without holding a referendum. A taste of things to come, perhaps.

And a reminder, if needed, of what Clarke's brand of Europhilia does to his party is provided in "Decline & Fall", Chris Mullin's second volume of diaries, published in paperback next month. Mullin's entry for 18 October 2005 reads:

Walked in from Kennington via Courtney Street. A gaggle of photographers outside Ken Clarke's house, waiting for him to show his face. Later we heard that he had been eliminated in the first round of the Tory leadership election. From our point of view, a pity. From theirs, sensible. He would have split the party from top to bottom. It's beginning to look as though David Cameron is going to come out on top, which could give us a problem in due course.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.