Come on, Nick. Seize the day

It's now up to the Lib Dem leader to kill the health bill.

Ed Miliband nearly got it right twice last week.

First he said the NHS Bill was going to be the Tories' new Poll Tax. Then he said the same bill could become another tuition fees debacle for the Lib Dems.

You can almost feel him groping for the right political analogy. He knows it's there, just eluding his grasp. So let me help him out.

Ed, you need to jam those thoughts together. The NHS Bill is going to be the Tories' tuition fees fiasco.

We know a bit about how this works in the Lib Dems. You make some promises. You associate yourself personally with those pledges. You even start running advertising assuring everyone that everything is safe in your hands. And then, when you're in power, you do the complete opposite. And the electorate crucify you for it.

Admittedly this has taken a little longer to pin on the Tories. I wrote a year ago, when reforms were first introduced, that this would happen and have been bemused ever since that folk haven't been more livid that the promise of "no top down reorganisations of the NHS'" appears to have been a bit of a fib. Especially when the likes of Andrew Mitchell go on the BBC and assert (as he did yesterday) that Andrew Lansley had been planning this for 5 years in opposition. (Given how things are panning out, I use planning in the loosest of terms).

I guess when, generally speaking, the country has such a low expectation of a Conservative politician keeping a promise, it takes longer for the anger to really sink in than it did for us Lib Dems, for whom people really did have higher hopes.

Which brings me to the little matter of redemption.

A couple of weeks ago it looked like Cameron was going to seize the day, drop the NHS bill, fire Lansley, and paint himself as the man who saved the NHS. There was an open goal there. For some reason he didn't take it. Who knows - maybe he really does believe in the reforms. Wouldn't that be a turn up?

Anyway, Cameron welded himself firmly to the Bill. Which means there is a vacancy going for a political leader willing to grasp the nettle, kill the bill and save the NHS. Ed Miliband would love to take it. But he of course, has no power. No, it needs someone who could actually stop the Bill, negotiate some sensible compromises with the Tories and Labour - everyone agrees some changes would be a good thing - and go some way to restoring the faith of a nation in their political acumen. And their principles.

Hey, Nick. Carpe Diem.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty
Show Hide image

The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit