What sort of prime minister would Miliband make?

For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour.

Part of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech earlier this week, signalling seismic changes in Labour’s relations with affiliated trade unions, was the boldness of his move. Not to be rude, but we’re not used to that from Ed. Cautious and incremental steps are what we usually get. It begs the question: what sort of prime minister would he make?

Last Friday, an unnamed former Labour minister told the Guardian that Miliband needed to move decisively in reframing the relationship with the trade unions, following the Falkirk selection debacle. "We need to have a commission that looks at the union link. All the general secretaries need to sign up to it. We need to get to a place where you simply have one category of Labour party members. There should no longer be a formal union affiliation.

"Of course, if unions want to donate to the party they can. Ed is not there yet. But he will be. He acts in a deliberative way. But when he makes a decision he moves very rapidly."

And so it came to pass. Miliband showed he was willing to square-up to Unite and announce changes revolutionising trade union involvement in the party that many observers thought were beyond him. Tony Blair’s glowing tribute was both genuine and generous. So does this week signal the emergence of Miliband 2.0?

Not really. His move was a superb piece of reactive political boldness (it’s hard to think he had such major reform in mind two weeks ago). Opportunistic, rather than instinctive, but decisive, too, when his mind is made up; and being able to react to big events is, after all, the stuff of the premiership.

In an interview last month, Lord Stewart Wood, shadow minister without portfolio and invariably described as Miliband’s consiglieri, offered this assessment of his boss: "In terms of style, Ed is collegiate. He looks for views early, before he makes up his mind. Gordon [Brown] wanted us to respond to his ideas [after] he had already taken them a long way down the line." He added: "Unlike a lot of other politicians, he invites people to give him constructive criticism. He has a desire to improve [and] he solicits views from people across the party."

As a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, and later energy secretary, Miliband was a mainstay throughout 13 years of Labour government and saw first hand the damage done to the government by the Blair/Brown wars. If his "collegiate" style is a reaction to that, then Wood is certainly right about his willingness to learn and improve.

But the government machine he would inherit in 2015 is markedly different to the one he left behind as a cabinet minister in 2010. The social democratic model of the New Labour years is now defunct. It is not enough to throw money at projects and move on to the next thing. Spending cuts and those infernal 'hard choices' will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Miliband will need to speak the "language of priorities" and know a thoroughbred idea from a civil servant’s hobby-horse in order to make his small state socialism work. For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour. Here he can learn from his predecessors.

Blair was good at building an effective team around him, yet there are still too few Milibandites willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for their man. While Gordon Brown ruled by pulling a thousand strings and making the Whitehall machine do his bidding, Miliband often gives the impression of making things up as he goes along. Yet despite this, he is far better prepared for the realities of power than Blair and Brown were in 1997 and his shadow cabinet is one of the most experienced since the Second World War.

Temperamentally, though, Miliband seems closer to President Obama than any of his immediate British predecessors. He is prepared to address vested interests but does so cautiously in closely-scoped terms, witness his criticisms of banks and energy companies, and sometimes seems unsure how far to push things.

Perhaps he should triangulate between Tony Blair’s informal sofa government and Margaret Thatcher’s manic swinging handbag? Where Miliband’s bridge-building style will work well, though, is if there’s another hung parliament in 2015; exercising soft power to build alliances and seek common ground in a way neither Blair nor Brown were well-suited to. For those who balked at the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband a week ago, how he would govern in 2015 has suddenly become a very real preoccupation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

From hard to soft to the “people’s Brexit”: Theresa May’s Britain is in one hell of a frightful mess

Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Theresa May became Prime Minister only because of Brexit. Her insouciant predecessor, whose most substantial contribution to this year’s general election campaign was to tweet a photograph of his and his wife’s feet as they lay side by side in bed, resigned because of Brexit. May’s successor will become prime minister because of Brexit. The defining question of British politics is Brexit and its effects and consequences.

So much time, energy and anxiety are being wasted on Brexit, and for what? For Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union that will be, in every way, inferior – socially, economically, culturally – to what we have already, and at a time of dangerous instability in the world, when a clown and braggart occupies the White House. Nobody told me there’d be days like these, as John Lennon once put it in a song popularised by his son Julian. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

***

David Cameron’s decision to hold the 2016 referendum at the height of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War was an act of spectacular folly by a politician who believed too much in the myth of his own good fortune (“Lucky Dave”, they called him). Michael Portillo has described it as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. After Cameron’s resignation last summer, Theresa May seemed like the only grown-up in a cabal of entitled and squabbling leadership contenders and Conservative MPs duly organised her coronation.

When she became Prime Minister, May delivered a fine speech in Downing Street: she would create a different, more communitarian, even post-liberal conservatism, and she would fight against “burning injustice”. She understood that the vote for Brexit was also a vote of protest against a failed economic model; against austerity, against stagnant wages and in-work poverty, and against ultra-globalisation. People were weary. “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle,” May said. “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

***

Opinion polls seemed to suggest that May was admired and trusted. She was cold and austere but she also seemed serious, and these were serious times. Yet May’s actions were never equal to her early rhetorical positioning and she never reached out to the many millions who had voted Remain and felt excluded.

By the time of the general election campaign, she was reduced to repeating soundbites and clichés. She had become the Maybot. The promising “Red Tory” language of the early months of her premiership – when she spoke about the common good and the need for greater social responsibility – had gone altogether. This is a source of much regret to her maligned former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy.

“My biggest regret,” he has said, “is that we did not campaign in accordance with the insight that took Theresa to Downing Street in the first place.” With her authority and confidence shattered, May will be gone soon: in seeking to deliver the hard Brexit her Eurosceptic supporters in the party and press demanded, she has succeeded only in creating more confusion and tumult.

***

May used to tell us with supreme wisdom that “Brexit means Brexit”. In her Lancaster House speech in January, she explained her preference for a “clean” Brexit (ie, Britain should leave the single market and customs union and be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice). Her use of the word “clean” was philosophically very interesting, especially when you consider its opposite: dirty, as in a dirty or unclean Brexit.

One of the many satisfying outcomes of the general election was that it has reopened the possibility of an alternative to hard (or clean) Brexit, for which there is no mandate in the House of Commons. I have been keeping a note of the different kinds of Brexit that are being touted.

What is clear is that the adjectives “hard” and “soft”, when prefixed to Brexit, are now quite passé. Emboldened by the improbable revival of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson favours what she calls an “open” Brexit, and so now does the preposterous Boris Johnson, too, who waits like a big, overheated, hungry dog for the door of 10 Downing Street to open for him, the saliva of ambition dribbling from his mouth.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s serious-minded barrister supreme, is against what he calls an “extreme Brexit”, even if we are not sure what he is actually for, and the Guardian opposes what it calls a “chaotic Brexit”. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and educationalist, supports a “sane Brexit”. The Labour activist Sam Tarry wants a “people’s Brexit”. The commentator Philip Stephens has called for an “intelligent Brexit”, as one would expect of an FT panjandrum; and ­Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic who leads a party of parliamentary Remainers, wants a Brexit that protects jobs and workers’ rights. Perhaps we should call this a “Bennite Brexit”. Do please let me know if you spot any other variations.

***

My own preference – and I write having been no great enthusiast for the EU before the referendum – is for “no Brexit”, such is the mess into which this country has been dragged by a former Conservative prime minister who believed the simple mechanism of a binary plebiscite could settle an internal party dispute; one that had festered since Ted Heath took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. This as well as his desire to assuage the populism of Nigel Farage and appease his tormentors in the press: and all at the time of his own choosing. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496