Why Liam Byrne is set to be ditched in Miliband's reshuffle

Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a leftist can sell Labour's new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP.

After acidly remarking that "when the Labour battle bus should be revving up, it is parked in a lay-by of introspection", Maurice Glasman is now offering Ed Miliband advice on what is becoming an increasingly important test of his leadership: next month's shadow cabinet reshuffle. The Labour peer, who was ennobled by Miliband in 2011, suggests in today's Times that his party's leader should replace shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne with contrarian backbencher Frank Field (who responded by describing it as a "good idea").

For several reasons, it's a trade Miliband won't be making. As a 71-year-old former New Labour minister, Field is exactly the kind of "greybeard" that the Labour leader wants to avoid bringing back and his policy proposals (he has called for Labour to outflank the Tories by proposing a lower benefit cap) would be anathema to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair famously appointed Field as social security minister in 1997 with an invitation to "think the unthinkable", only for Field to resign the following year when the "unthinkable" turned out to be unacceptable. It is not a mistake that Miliband will be repeating. 

But where Glasman is right is in suggesting that Byrne is unlikely to be in his brief after the reshuffle. In the words of one Labour MP, he has "badly lost the confidence of the PLP" and Miliband's team were furious when he recently fractured the delicate welfare compromise negotiated by the leader by attacking the coalition's benefit cap as too soft, declaring that "ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare." I'm told that the intervention was unauthorised by Miliband's office and was regarded as "deeply unhelpful". 

The view among many in the party is that if Labour is to reach a position on welfare that both its MPs and the electorate can live with, then it is essential for Miliband to appoint a shadow work and pensions secretary who is trusted by backbenchers. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a leftist can sell Labour's new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP. 

But should Byrne be removed the shadow cabinet, it will allow the Tories to revive their favourite charge - that it's Len McCluskey who calls the shots in Labour. The shadow work and pensions secretary was one of the "Blairites" that the Unite general secretary famously suggested should be sacked or ignored in his interview with me earlier this year. He told me: "Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy. I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be." Few in Labour would now dissent from that view. 

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne speaks at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.