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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.