Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband makes hay of Cameron's "utter humiliation" over Europe

The Labour leader routed the PM in the Commons as he derided "a masterclass in how to alienate your allies".

After another bad weekend for Labour, marked by Jon Cruddas's attack on the party's "dead hand", Ed Miliband has just lifted his MPs' spirits with one of his strongest Commons performances to date. Responding to David Cameron's statement on last week's EU summit, he brutally assailed the PM's failure to block Jean-Claude Juncker's nomination as commission president.

Cameron, he noted, started by claiming that he had the support of Germany and others to block the former Luxembourg PM, but his "threats, insults and disengagement turned out to be a masterclass in how to alienate your allies and lose the argument for Britain". He insisted that the EU was not unreformable - "it's just that he can't do it". It is unlikely that Labour would have been able to block Juncker (whose candidacy it also opposed),  but this did nothing to dull the force of his performance.

The strategy of threatening EU withdrawal, he declared, "was put to the test and failed".  If the PM couldn't get three countries (Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) to oppose Juncker, how could he hope to get 27 to support his renegotiation plan? It is a question that Downing Street itself is asking after Angela Merkel (the pivotal figure in Cameron's strategy) failed to deliver on her promise to line up against Juncker. For some Tories, this is cause for celebration as the UK drifts towards the EU exit. But as Miliband reminded MPs, Cameron has been and remains a supporter of British membership - this was not an outcome he ever intended. The PM, he concluded, had been "outwitted, outmanoeuvred, and outvoted" with his renegotiation strategy "in tatters".

Cameron replied by comparing Miliband's lengthy response to Neil Kinnock ("endless wind, endless rhetoric"), a jibe that went down predictably well with the Tory benches, and declared that he wouldn't take lectures from the people who gave away the national veto over the commission presidency. He went on to ask where Miliband was when the European Socialists  voted to support Juncker. But he had no adequate response to the charge that his renegotiation strategy was now fatally flawed.

The one card that Cameron can still play is that he will allow the British people to determine the UK's future in Europe. Labour's refusal to match Cameron's guarantee of an in/out referendum sits uneasily with its new emphasis on "people power" and devolving decision-making. Should the Lib Dems change their stance and promise a vote, it will be even harder for Miliband to defend his position (despite it being the correct one). But for now, he can savour a victory over a PM, who, as he said, "is not in splendid insolation, but in utter humilitation".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.