Doubts about Miliband’s commitment to welfare reform go up in flames. In a good way, they hope.

The welfare line that Miliband is going to take owes a lot to the work that Liam Byrne has been doing.

So tomorrow, Ed Miliband will say something significant about welfare. Some of the outline has been briefed in advance and some has leaked out perhaps not so strategically. Either way, we know that the Labour leader is going to say something that he hopes will make it harder for his enemies to claim, as they often do, that he doesn’t want to talk about benefits.

In fact, his friends have privately said much the same too. More than once in recent months I’ve been told by Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet ministers, that the reason the party’s line on welfare is a bit foggy is that Ed himself "hasn’t properly made up his mind what he thinks." Well, it seems that now he has. And tomorrow, we’re going to find out the result of his meditations.

There isn’t much point in me going on at length about it here, not least because, judging by standard media-management practice, there will be some little surprise that Team Ed has held back and that everyone will be talking about tomorrow afternoon. The Labour leader likes to disappear into his cave to think very hard for weeks at a time and then emerge with something shiny so that his anxious tribe that was on the verge of panicking and the media are briefly dazzled and cry, "Oooh! We underestimated him. Again." (We’ll pass quickly over the fact that this technique – the meticulously planned set-piece intervention – may owe something to Miliband’s apprenticeship at the feet of one G Brown in the Treasury.)

A final observation: by the sounds of things, the welfare line that Miliband is going to take owes a lot to the work that Liam Byrne has been doing. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Byrne is shadow work and pensions secretary. Yet a feature of Labour’s welfare debate in recent years as been the shadow secretary of state coming out with speeches, statements and interviews on the need to restore the contributory principle; on "switch-spending"; on returning to Bevan’s original vision that coupled an individual’s responsibility to work with the state’s duty to guarantee full employment – and the leader’s office going eerily quiet. Meanwhile, the left piles into Byrne as a Blairite stooge.

So isolated has Byrne looked at times that I recently asked a senior Labour source in the leader’s office to confirm that what the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said about benefits could actually be taken as a statement of current Labour party policy. "Absolutely," came the answer. "Ed thinks the same as Liam." When I then pointed out that it didn’t always come across that way, I got the answer: "Well we do have to work on getting our message across more clearly."

I put the same question to another senior shadow cabinet figure a week or so ago and was told: "Ed gets it now. He will deliver the message himself and it will be in neon and lit up like a firework." So tomorrow, it seems, is the day doubts about Miliband’s commitment to welfare reform go up in flames. In a good way, they hope.

 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left