The Tories' Co-Op attacks have the whiff of desperation

With Labour's poll lead growing, the Tories are determined for something to knock Miliband off course. But the Co-Op affair won't be it.

The Conservatives' increasingly risible attempts to pin the Co-Op scandal on Labour carry the whiff of political desperation. Labour's poll lead is growing, not shrinking. Few voters know or care about the Falkirk furore. Growth has returned, but Ed Miliband’s success in shifting the debate towards living standards means the Tories have not benefited. "What do we have to do to beat them?" is the question Conservative MPs are asking. 

This sense of incredulity was well captured in a much-read column by the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan this week. "How can it be," he wrote, "that a party widely blamed for the nation’s ills – let alone one led by a politician who commands so little public respect – is in a position to measure the curtains for Downing Street? Soundly rejected, only to be welcomed back a term later: if it came to pass, a Labour win would deserve an award for most unlikely political comeback."

In these circumstances, the Tories greeted the Paul Flowers scandal as a drowning man greets a life raft. But it is likely to do them no good. The links between Flowers and Miliband and Balls (unlike those between David Cameron and those Miliband said he couldn't "talk about") are far too tangential to do Labour any harm. (Balls has never met him and Miliband held one meeting with him.) The Tories have produced no evidence to support their suggestion that either had any knowledge of Flowers's misdemeanours. The net result of the affair is only likely to be an increase in public loathing of politics in general. By obsessing over Flowers ("a clearly troubled individual," as Douglas Carswell says), the Tories only reinforce the impression that they have nothing useful to offer. 

A man walks past a branch of the Co-operative bank in central London on November 20, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.