Reforming zeal: Rachel Reeves says that high immigration means the welfare system must change. Photograph: Felicity McCabe for New Statesman.
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Rachel Reeves interview: A Miliband loyalist fights back

The shadow work and pensions secretary warns those who brief against the Labour leader: "The only people it serves are our political opponents."

It is often said of Ed Miliband by friends and foes that he lacks “outriders”. At moments of weakness he seems short of the die-in-a-ditch allies who sustained Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at their lowest points.

Rachel Reeves is one of the small band of shadow cabinet members who can be relied on to defend him at every turn. When I meet her at Portcullis House in Westminster and mention Labour’s recent woes, she delivers an unprompted tribute to Miliband.

“I backed Ed right from the beginning of his leadership contest because I saw somebody who listened to people, who cared passionately about giving people a better start in life,” the shadow work and pensions secretary tells me. “That’s why he’s been a strong leader and it’s why he’ll be a great prime minister.”

When I ask if she is troubled by Miliband’s personal ratings, which have fallen below those of Michael Foot and Nick Clegg in some polls, she replies: “The polls that really matter are what happens when people vote. We’ve got 2,000 more councillors than we had when we lost the last general election. When I’m out door-knocking – and I obviously spend a lot of time in my own constituency in Leeds West but also in the next-door seat of Pudsey – the issue of leadership that comes up is David Cameron’s leadership.”

She explains Miliband’s unpopularity by arguing that “it is always difficult for a leader of the opposition, because you’ve got to prove that you can do a job that people can’t see you doing until you actually do it”. She adds: “If you look at Tony Blair in the 1990s, he was called ‘Bambi’. If you look at the last general election, in terms of ability to do the job, people thought that Gordon Brown was better than David Cameron because David Cameron hadn’t been given that opportunity to do the job . . . I don’t think Ed was under any illusion when he became leader of the Labour Party: it was going to be difficult.”

To those who offer less sympathetic judgements of Miliband, often under the cover of anonymity, she has a firm retort: “If you’re going to talk to the press, you should put your name to it. Members of the shadow cabinet, members of the Parliamentary Labour Party aren’t commentators, we are participants . . . I don’t think there is a role for anyone briefing against our party. The only people it serves are our political opponents.”

Since taking on the social security brief in the October 2013 reshuffle, having entered parliament in 2010, the 35-year-old Reeves has won activists’ support by leading opposition to government measures such as the bedroom tax and the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases. But her recent vow to restrict welfare payments to EU migrants, in an article for MailOnline, divided the party, with some accusing her of pandering to Ukip and perpetuating myths about “benefit tourism”. Reeves, however, is unrepentant.

“Our welfare state was never created for a world where you have such high levels of migration. And it certainly wasn’t created so that people, when they arrive in this country, before ever having contributed or having any connection, are able to draw down on support whether
in work or out of work. It is right to redefine the rules for the new era we are in.”

She defends the decision to place the article with the Daily Mail, the title most reviled among Labour members. “We need to make sure that our message reaches all of the electorate . . . and to make sure that we get coverage in all newspapers, including those who might not back us at election time. The reality is there are a lot of Labour voters, there are a lot of floating voters, who read the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Times, and we’ve got to make sure that the people reading those newspapers hear what Labour’s policies are.”

But the tensions between Reeves and some in Labour are as nothing compared with those between her and Iain Duncan Smith, a man of whom she speaks with undisguised contempt. Their relationship reached a new nadir on 3 November when the Work and Pensions Secretary refused to apologise for claiming that she had not bothered to turn up for a vote (Reeves was absent due to illness). “I think he’s an incredibly rude man and I think that anybody else would have apologised,” she tells me, revealing that “a number of Conservative MPs” came up to her afterwards to say that he had “behaved very badly” and to apologise on his behalf. “It was very nice of them, but he’s quite capable of apologising for himself,” Reeves says.

Is she surprised, like some in Westminster, that he has kept his job despite multiple failures? “Well, I expect that people like Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, when they were summarily dismissed from their jobs at the last reshuffle, must have wondered why the axe came for them but not for Iain Duncan Smith.”

As for whether she will be in a position to replace IDS next May, she is unambiguous: “Because of Ed’s leadership, the decisions that he’s made and his ability to keep the party united, we are set to defy the odds and be a one-term opposition.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles by Progress on the next Conservative leader.