Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper sing the Red Flag at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: Jon Cruddas calls for end to Labour leadership "Top Trumps"

"It’s not about Andy, or Ed, or Yvette," Labour's policy review head tells the New Statesman.

In recent weeks, Ed Miliband's worsening personal ratings have become the subject of increasing concern in Labour. Even some of those loyal to his vision are starting to doubt whether he has the ability to sell it to the country. In these circumstances, discussion among MPs inevitably turns to whether an alternative leader would perform better and who would replace Miliband in the event of defeat. 

But in an interview with me for this week's New Statesman, Jon Cruddas offers a staunch defence of Miliband's style and calls for an end to what he describes as "a game of Top Trumps across the leadership". The party's policy review head adds that "it’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper]", becoming the first shadow cabinet member to publicly name some of those regarded by Labour MPs as positioning themselves for a future contest. Burnham, Balls and Cooper were not named by the NS“If people think the solution to this is X rather than Y, they are deluding themselves," Cruddas says, commenting that "this won’t be resolved by throwing someone else in front of the train."

When I asked Cruddas whether he was troubled by Miliband's unpopularity, he told me: "I see him at close quarters. He has a different form of leadership, which I quite like, actually, it’s more inclusive, it’s quite plural ... We have to expose that in terms of the country. We’re laying down the stuff to make sure that he will have an agenda to articulate."

He added: 

You ain’t going to do it by having a game of Top Trumps across the leadership, it’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper] ... If people think the solution to this is X rather than Y, they are deluding themselves.

He continued: "There’s a deeper story about what Labour is now and has it got the game to navigate through, in a contemporary way, the challenges that people are facing. That’s why this policy job is absolutely fascinating because it allows you to paddle in this pool." 

Elsewhere in the interview, Cruddas told me that he was not certain that his policy vision would survive contact with Labour's political machine, speaking of "tripwires", "cross-currents" and "tensions".  He identified the "essential conservatism" of organisations and the party’s "centralised" and even "authoritarian" tendencies as the main obstacles to change. "Have we got the political agility and the game to mainline it into our formal policy offer and the architecture of the party? The jury’s out on that, but I’m pretty confident," he said. 

On his past support for a guaranteed in/out EU referendum, which Miliband has ruled out, Cruddas said that he accepted "the settled view" but added that he advocated the policy "to try and get ahead of this question". He concluded: "I’m not non-opinionated on these things, but you have to sacrifice some of that for your seat in the game. That’s all I’d say on that one!"

Here's the full quote:

I used to have the view, before I joined the shadow cabinet, that an in/out referendum could be very useful in terms of some of the deeper issues of democracy and alienation, I come at this as a radical democrat, primarily. I support the settled view within the shadow cabinet about the strategy, I can see the point now. If we dashed for an in/out referendum it would look somewhat gratuitous as a political landgrab and it would be reactive. I was advocating this a few years ago to try and get ahead of this question.

We’re now in a fairly settled position on it being contingent on treaty reform and the timing not being good anyway, with what’s been ricocheting around the eurozone the last few years, so I’m not exercised about it. Even though my position has been fairly clear in the public domain for a while.

I’m not non-opinionated on these things, but you have to sacrifice some of that for your seat in the game. That’s all I’d say on that one!

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.