Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour can’t stand Farage but they don’t want him to fail

Miliband’s reliance on Ukip taking votes from the Tories puts the opposition in an uncomfortable moral position.

The benefits for both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage of debating Britain’s membership of the European Union on TV and radio tonight are clear. Each hopes to raise his profile and remind everyone that England has more than two parties worth considering in elections. (In Scotland and Wales that has been obvious for a while.)

Although they will be taking antagonistic positions they are not exactly rivals. The two leaders are fishing in fairly distinct pools of electors. Clegg is not  in the business of reaching out to anti-immigration, anti-politics nay-sayers and Farage is even less interested in charming the liberal Europhile vote. As I wrote in my column recently, the Lib Dem leader’s chief aim is to rebut the charges that he doesn’t believe in anything and serves no obvious purpose. (Otherwise known as the “if the Lib Dems didn’t exist, would you have to invent them?” question.) Standing up as the anti-Farage – the only leader prepared to call Ukip out rather than cringing in fear – is not a bad way to claw back some self-respect for a party that has taken a sustained beating in recent years.

As one senior Lib Dem recently pointed out to me, since the party is sure to be mauled in local elections and European parliamentary elections in May, there is some virtue in facing the barrage from a position of clear principle. Better, in other words, to be duffed up for believing in something and sticking to it than for being David Cameron’s anonymous lapdog.

From Farage’s point of view, anything that establishes Ukip as a mainstream threat to the Westminster status quo is a win. But there are obvious risks. His appeal so far has been built on relatively short performances and bursts of publicity – the one-minute Question Time rant; the photo-shoot in the pub. It isn’t yet clear that he can sustain a credible argument over a length of time and he has recently displayed a tendency to get tetchy and impatient when challenged. I suspect part of Clegg’s strategy will be to flush out Nasty Nigel – the angry red-faced man railing in fear and rage at the modern world. The big advantage that the Ukip leader has is that he is on the more popular side of the argument. If it was easy to make EU membership obviously attractive to British audiences, one of the very many pro-European politicians in power over the past generation might have done it.

For that reason, pro-Europeans will be cheering Clegg on tonight. Well, most pro-Europeans. An interesting question is what the Labour party will be hoping happens in the prize fight. On the issues, the overwhelming majority of opposition MPs, including Ed Miliband, are much closer to the Lib Dem position than the Ukip one. Besides, a party of the left should by instinct want to see a reactionary nationalist insurgency defeated. Ideally, Labour would be taking that fight to Farage directly but Miliband already has his work cut out taking the fight to Cameron.  And since Ukip is making life difficult for the Tories, taking their voters in crucial marginal seats, the opposition has an interest in Farage’s bubble not bursting.

By contrast, Cameron advertises himself as a Eurosceptic but he has committed himself to campaigning for an “in” vote in a referendum (albeit on the assumption that the vote follows a successful renegotiation of membership terms). His interests are clearly aligned with Clegg’s tonight. If the Lib Dem leader proves to be an effective foil to Farage, it gets easier to see how the tide might be turned against Ukip, which means voters coming back to the Tories in time for a 2015 general election. And, better still, if Clegg achieves any kind of recovery on the back of a solidly liberal pro-EU platform, it will be at Labour’s expense.

The line from both Labour and Tories is that tonight’s debate is a side-show for also-ran parties. A Downing Street spokesman yesterday said that Cameron was unlikely to have time even to watch the argument. No doubt Miliband also wants us to think that he is also too busy. And in reality most of the nation will find something better to do than sit through an hour of qualified majority voting weights and Strasbourg attendance records. But the leaders of the two big parties will, of course, be paying attention, not least because they will be looking for clues and insight into how a 2015 general election debate might play out. Cameron will be secretly rooting for Clegg. His party might not like that but the electoral logic is clear. Tories need Farage to fail. By extension, Labour need Clegg to stay beaten and Conservatives to stay frightened of Ukip. It is not a comfortable position for the opposition, wanting Farage’s arguments to be defeated at some stage but not wanting the man himself to stumble yet; not when he might still help clear a route for Miliband to get to Downing Street.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.