Liam Byrne's last stand: five things we learned

The shadow work and pensions secretary took Ed Miliband's advice and referred to "social security", rather than "welfare".

Ahead of next month's shadow cabinet reshuffle, Liam Byrne's speech today was likely the last he will give as shadow work and pensions secretary. As I revealed earlier this week, the view in Labour is that Ed Miliband needs a spokesman the PLP can trust if he is to persuade it to accept his "tough but fair" approach to welfare. (Although Byrne wasn't short of praise for Miliband, describing him as a "man of courage and vision" who had done "extraordinary" things to set the agenda.) 

Unsurprisingly, then, his speech didn't contain any new policies but it was notable on several other fronts. Here are five points that stood out for me. 

1. It's called social security, not welfare

Ed Miliband has recently encouraged Labour MPs to refer to "social security", rather than "welfare", and Byrne is clearly one who got the message. While "social security" appeared 12 times in the speech, "welfare" appeared just once (in the final line: "their promised welfare revolution has collapsed"). In the Q&A that followed, Byrne succinctly explained the logic of this shift: "the words social security are important because they include the word security and because they imply a social contract". 

2. The bedroom tax: "It should be dropped, and dropped now" 

Byrne delivered one of the strongest attacks on the bedroom tax that we've heard from a Labour frontbencher, describing it as "the worst possible combination of incompetence and cruelty". He noted that "96% of those hit have nowhere to move to" (which means higher arrears and homelessness) and that it was "costing the public an extra £102.5 million to implement", concluding: "It should be dropped, and dropped now." This doesn't amount to a commitment to reverse the policy in 2015 but as I wrote last week, Labour will pledge to abolish it in 2015 and Byrne's speech revealed the grounds on which it will do so - that it costs more than it saves.

3. We support welfare cuts too

While Byrne's speech emphasised how Labour would seek to reduce social security spending by tackling unemployment (through its Compulsory Jobs Guarantee) and building more homes, it also highlighted several cuts the party supports. He reminded his audience that Labour has called for Winter Fuel Payments to be removed from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners and that it would not "prioritise" the restoration of child benefit for higher earners.

Byrne also declared his support for "tightening up the rules on child related benefits for foreign workers." He explained: "Most people who come to Britain from Europe work hard and contribute more in taxes than they use in public services or claim in benefits, but we just don’t think it is fair that someone could move to London and leave their children in Paris or Prague and claim British family benefits and send them home."

4. Universal Credit - Labour would keep it

While deriding the government's dramatic retreat on Universal Credit, which will now apply to just ten job centres when it is rolled out this October (it was originally due to apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits), Byrne attempted to be constructive by calling for cross-party talks with civil servants "so that we can see exactly how bad things are and what's needed to fix them". It's not an offer Iain Duncan Smith is likely to accept (in an unsually personal attack on the Work and Pensions Secretary he said: "Something seems to be very wrong in the mind of the man at the helm of DWP") but it is an indication that the programme would likely survive a change of government. Byrne said that Universal Credit, which will replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, was "a good idea in principle" and that "if Iain Duncan Smith won’t save Universal Credit, then Labour will have to prepare to clean up his mess."

5. The return of "full employment"

"Full employment" might be a phrase more associated with the Keynesian golden age than with recent British politics but under Ed Miliband it has been restored as an aim of Labour policy. The party views full employment (defined by William Beveridge as an unemployment rate no higher than 3%) as the foundation of a strong economy and the best way to reduce social security spending and narrow inequality. In his speech, Byrne promised that "over the weeks and months ahead", Labour would outline "a new approach that returns our country to full employment".

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's Article 50 letter fires the Brexit starting gun

But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process. 

So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago.  As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.

Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.

And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very  severe indeed for the UK.  There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.

So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception.  Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger  issue  is whether Mrs May  is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.

Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.

I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.

And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?

It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.

And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.

The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.

Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered  - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.

Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?

It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.

Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong. 

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.