Tony Benn arrives to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph at a ceremony on August 17, 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Thanks to Ed Miliband, Tony Benn died at peace with Labour

With Miliband as leader, Benn finally felt at home again in the party he served for so long.

In his ninth and final volume of diaries A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine (2013), Tony Benn predicted that he would not live to see the election of another Labour government. Sadly, this great democrat, socialist and internationalist has been proved right today. 

It was Labour that Benn, the son and grandson of Liberal MPs, devoted his political life to. He was elected as the MP for Bristol South East in a by-election in 1950 (becoming the "Baby of the House") and served almost continuously until 2001 (becoming the "Father of the House"). Despite his friendships with Communists and Trotskyists, he never abandoned his belief in Labour as the indispensable vehicle for socialism. 

At several points in history, there were many in the party who wished he had. Many never forgave him for his decision to challenge Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981 (losing by just 0.8 per cent), in defiance of Michael Foot's appeal to unity, and for his refusal to "compromise with the electorate". By far the harshest words said about Benn today will be from his foes on the left, not those on the right. 

That Benn, unlike many of his comrades, chose to remain in the party throughout the New Labour era was partly because he refused to recognise Tony Blair as its leader. As he said many times, he regarded New Labour as a "new political party" - a quasi-Thatcherite sect that led Britain into illegal wars (he most commonly described Blair as a "war criminal"), demonised asylum seekers and privatised parts of the public realm that even the Conservatives dared not touch. Benn never left Labour - but he felt as if Labour had left him. 

He said of Blair last year: "We as a party had suffered greatly from the influence of Mr Blair. He was a man who became leader because he was a successful campaigner, but I don’t think he was ever truly a Labour man. The war in Iraq was a crime and now he has been put in charge of achieving peace in the Middle East, which obviously lacks any credibility. Labour had to get beyond Blair in order to ever have credibility with the electorate again. That’s what I think we are achieving now."

But with the election of Ed Miliband, who interned in his basement office at 16 and whose father he knew well, he finally felt at home again in the party. Unlike Blair and other New Labour figures, who treated him as an embarrassing uncle or simply ignored him all together, Miliband was prepared to embrace him as a fellow friend of democracy and socialism. I remember a touching moment at the Compass conference in 2009 when Miliband, speaking brilliantly without notes (the first time I witnessed that now-famous feat), referred with pride to Benn's presence in the front row and the hall erupted in applause. 

After his preferred leadership candidate John McDonnell failed to make the ballot in 2010, Benn happily endorsed Miliband as "the best candidate", one who cleansed the stains left by Blair. Following his first speech as leader he wrote: "It was a remarkable speech: it was based on his own experiences, and those of his parents during the war, and it will have an appeal well beyond the Labour party. His words on optimism were also important because the media concentrate on spreading pessimism about everything, claiming that new ideas won't work – so, instead of working to improve their lives, people can be dissuaded from making the effort. This speech will help to build up people's confidence in him. I've known him since he was a teenager – he came and worked for a month with me after his O-levels. I supported him for leader and he's justified every hope I had."

More recently, he praised Miliband's pledge to scrap the bedroom tax and his "vigorous" defence of his father. Asked last year whether he believed he could be the next prime minister he replied: "Of course. And he would be a very good one. I’m not in the business of predicting election results as that is always a very foolish thing to do. Whether or not he is left wing is not the point. The point is that he is a trustworthy and capable man that people respond to."

There could be no greater tribute to Benn than for Miliband to now fufil those hopes - and lead Labour to victory next year. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.