Why Miliband-Balls won't be a repeat of Blair-Brown

Having witnessed the original feud at first hand, both men are conscious of the need to avoid an irrevocable split.

Appearing on Daybreak this morning, Ed Miliband was inevitably asked about the email sent by his aide Torsten Bell describing Ed Balls as a "nightmare". He replied: 

It’s fair to say that people send silly emails in offices and this was one of them. Ed and I are working really well together. I'm really proud to have him as the shadow chancellor, working alongside me. He is someone who I think has been right in his criticism of the government's economic policy and he's also leading the way on this cost of living crisis.

He will want to prepare a condensed version of that answer for this week's PMQs, when he can expect David Cameron to mention the incident at every opportunity. 

The leak (the result of Bell accidentally copying in Tory MP James Morris rather than the Labour pollster of the same name) means that there will be even more scrutiny of Balls and Miliband's words in an attempt to find differences between the two men. 

There are genuine tensions. As I wrote yesterday, the Labour leader's team have privately accused the shadow chancellor, who was not Miliband's first choice for the job, of being insufficiently committed to his responsible capitalism agenda and too focused on defending the record of the last Labour government. There also differences between the pair over HS2 and the proposed third runway at Heathrow, with Balls openly favouring the latter over the former, the reverse of Miliband's position.

But if comparisons with Blair and Brown are inevitable, they are also wide of the mark. Perhaps the most important difference is that Balls has no intention of seeking to dislodge Miliband. Unlike Brown, he was beaten in a leadership contest and is now focused on becoming Chancellor, the job for which he is supremely qualified.

The experience of the Blair-Brown fued, which both men witnessed at first hand as advisers to the Chancellor, also means that they are more conscious than they might otherwise be of the need to avoid an irrevocable split. As Miliband remarked after appointing Balls as shadow chancellor: "We have seen that movie before and had front row seats. We are determined that there will be no sequel. It was a formative experience for both of us. It is something we are absolutely determined to avoid and we will avoid." 

While tensions and differences of emphasis (hardly unusual between a leader and his shadow chancellor) are likely to remain, those Tories hoping that history will repeat itself are likely to be disappointed. 

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair stand in front of the Cenotaph on Whitehall during the annual Remembrance Sunday service on November 10, 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.