Did Miliband reveal the theme of his Labour conference speech today?

The emphasis that Miliband put on building more houses in his TUC speech suggests that a big announcement could soon follow.

Rather than the predicted boos, Ed Miliband's speech to the TUC was met with polite applause. Miliband gave a fluent no-notes performance but the hall never quite came to life. 

There were no surprises in the speech, which was heavily trailed, but the most striking moment came when he departed from the script to speak at length about the need to build more houses. The emphasis that Miliband put on this, and the force with which he spoke, suggested to me that housing could be the centrepiece of his conference speech in two weeks' time. 

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband called the "fundamental problem" of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour's pledge to "rebuild Britain" after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war. 

Elsewhere, Miliband reprised the "one nation" theme of his 2012 Labour conference speech, inviting delegates to applaud 19th-century Conservative prime minister Edward Stanley, "the man who first legislated to allow trade unions in this country" ("Red Ed"), and contrasting the moderate Tories of the past with David Cameron, "who writes you and your members off". 

As expected, he offered a principled defence of his plan to reform the Labour-union link so that members are required to opt-in to join the party, rather than being automatically affiliated by general secretaries. In a strong challenge to those who defend the status quo, he lamented that the "vast majority" of the current three million affiliates "play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only. That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision." But the remarks were met with stony silence. One senses that most delegates regard the reforms with indifference. 

The longest applause came when Miliband promised to crackdown on "exploitative" zero-hour contracts but in the Q&A that followed, several delegates demanded that he go further and impose an outright ban. On public spending, he didn't utter the 'c-word' - cuts - but spoke of how a Labour government would have to stick to "strict spending limits". In the Q&A, when asked if he was for or against austerity, Miliband replied: "we're not in favour of austerity. I'm absolutely clear about that" but added that Labour would need to reduce the large deficit it is likely to inherit.

By this, Miliband means that Labour would invest more now in infrastructure to stimulate growth, while reducing borrowing in medium-term. But while economically coherent, it risks becoming a politically muddled message and the Tories have already leapt on his declaration that he is "not in favour of austerity" as proof that Labour has already abandoned the "iron discipline" that he and Ed Balls spoke of in their speeches earlier this year. For Miliband, the issue of spending remains a political tightrope that he is liable to fall off at any moment. 

Ed Miliband speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left