How to know who's heading up in the shadow cabinet reshuffle

Have they passed the Question Time test?

It is an open secret in Westminster that Ed Miliband will hold a shadow cabinet reshuffle at some point before the Labour conference, so who is line for promotion? One Labour MP told me that a good rule of thumb is to look at those who have recently appeared on Question Time (often for the first time), regarded as a useful test of their media abilities. 

Recent Labour panellists have included shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker (23 May), shadow immigration ministers Chris Bryant (16 May) and shadow climate change minister Luciana Berger (25 April), all of whom other sources have told me are likely to be promoted in the reshuffle. Stella Creasy (currently shadow minister for crime prevention), who has already appeared several times on the programme, is another expected to move up the ranks. 

MPs also suggest that Rachel Reeves, currently on maternity leave, is likely to shadow "a major spending department" when she returns, with Chris Leslie, who has acted as Ed Balls's deputy in her absence, possibly replacing her as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. 

Incidentally, a senior Labour figure told me last week that Alistair Darling would almost certainly have to return to the frontline after "saving the Union" next year (Darling is chair of the Better Together campaign) but not as shadow chancellor (rightly so, in my view; Ed Balls's performance yesterday showed why he is such an asset for Labour). The source suggested he could take on the role of party chair, one of the posts currently held by Harriet Harman. Here's what Darling had to say when recently asked by Andrew Neil on The Sunday Politics if he would "come and help the battle to give the Labour Party economic credibility".

I am very confident that my colleagues, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, are very aware of what they have to do and they will do it. Because we owe it to the people that support us and the people we’ve yet to win over to put forward an argument that is going to convince people. Heavens, you know, you rightly said this government is in one terrible mess at the moment as far as the economy is concerned. They’re way off track, none of their plans are stacking up, they’re losing credibility. We need to have a compelling alternative. There is one, and I will be helping my colleagues do that. But at the moment, for the next 18 months, you know where I am.

To translate, he's ruling nothing out. 

Luciana Berger, currently shadow climate change minister, is one of those in line for promotion.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.