Labour MPs divide over whether to boycott the Thatcher tribute or hijack it

Former minister John Healey says "this will not be the occasion or opportunity" to criticise Thatcher's record but David Winnick says it would be "absolutely hypocritical" not to.

Ahead of today's special Parliamentary tribute to Margaret Thatcher, Ed Miliband has been encouraging Labour MPs to return from their constituencies in order to ensure the party is well represented at the occasion. There is, however, no formal requirement for backbenchers to attend and several have publicly announced that they intend to stay away.

In an article for PoliticsHome, former minister John Healey writes that David Cameron is "wrong to recall Parliament" and that Thatcher's death "could and should have been marked when the Commons returns next week." Healey, like other Labour MPs, is angered at the attempt by Thatcher's supporters to present her as a figure above and beyond party politics. He notes that Parliament has only been recalled 25 times since the Second World War and only once to pay tribute "to a truly national figure, the Queen Mother". Thatcher's legacy, he writes, is "too bitter" to merit such treatement. "I will play no part and I will stay away, with other things to do at home in the constituency."

Other Labour MPs who intend to remain on holiday or in their constituencies, include Ronnie Campbell, a former miner and MP for Blyth Valley, and John Mann, who has said he doesn't understand why "taxpayers' money" should be wasted on an additional session when it could be "properly done on Monday". Campbell said: "I have got better things to do in the office here, looking after the interests of the people of Blyth Valley than listening to people singing her praises. Some MPs might think it is their duty to be there — I certainly do not. Her legacy here was the destruction of thousands of jobs."

But while the Labour leadership wants as many as MPs as possible to attend (the site of empty opposition benches would be uncomfortable for Miliband) , it has made it clear that it would rather they stay away than use the occasion to attack Thatcher's time in office. As Healey rightly notes in his piece, the event is officially described as a "special session in which tributes will be paid"; it is not a debate on her record.  He adds: 

This will not be the occasion or opportunity to debate the closure of the coal industry, the squandering of North Sea oil revenues to cover the cost of tax cuts, the ‘big bang’ deregulation of banking, the £17 billion privatisation of public housing or the deep social divisions as a legacy of her period as Prime Minister.

For the same reason, George Galloway, who tweeted "may she burn in the hellfires" following the news of Thatcher's death, will boycott the occasion. Asked if he would be attending, Galloway said: "I understand it is not a debate, so no. If it were a debate about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher I would be first in the queue for prayers. It is a state-organised eulogy."

However, at least one Labour MP has announced that, if called by the Speaker, he will criticise Thatcher's record. David Winnick told the Guardian: "It would be absolutely hypocritical if those of us who were opposed at the time to what occurred – the mass unemployment, the poverty – were to remain silent when the house is debating her life. This will be an opportunity to speak frankly." Miliband, who is wary of Labour being seen to attack Thatcher just 48 hours after the news of her death, will hope that few choose to follow his lead. 

Margaret Thatcher attends the State Opening of Parliament in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.