Natalie Bennett's gaffes give Labour hope. Photo: Getty
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Natalie Bennett, Labour's secret weapon?

Labour think that Natalie Bennett's poor TV performances will hand them victory. Funnily enough, that's what the Conservatives think about them.

Get Natalie Bennett on the telly! That’s not the cry coming from the Green party’s press office, but from senior Labour strategists.

They think that, away from the spotlight, the Greens’ unlikely leader is dangerous because “she’s whatever voters want her to be”, as one puts it.  “There are people voting Green because Ed is anti-immigration” one organiser explains to me, “But there are just as many because they think he’d ruin the economy”.

When people imagine Bennett, she is free of the so-called ’3 Es’ that organisers say stop people voting Labour – “expenses, the economy, and Ed Miliband” – she can’t claim expenses because she’s not an MP, she won’t ruin the economy because she won’t win, and she’s not Ed Miliband. “But when she’s interviewed, she is actually even worse than  Ed,” the same organiser says. “I think if Caroline [Lucas] was still leader, we would be in the absolute ****.”

Bennett, in contrast, lacks passion,  and added to her dubious highlights reel this morning with an uncertain performance on the Today programme, when she once again failed to explain how the citizens’ income would work and threw some easy headlines to the right-wing press after favouring a less than steely response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Nicola [Sturgeon, leader of the SNP] is great and we wish she was on TV less,” an insider explains, “Leanne [Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru] is awful and is on TV a fair amount. Natalie Bennett is a joke but people don’t see enough of her.”

As Siraj Datoo writes this morning over at BuzzFeed, Labour will not attack the Greens directly – in fact,  staffers on the party’s anti-Green unit are at pains that it be described as anything but an “anti-Green unit” – but they’re perfectly happy for their left-wing rivals to be roughed up by other people.

That she can’t explain the basic income – an idea that has support from across the political spectrum, ranging from Philip Collins, a former Blair aide, in the centre, all the way out to Friedrich Hayek on the right – without sounding as if she’s been invited into the studio by accident strengthens that view.

It gives Labour two reasons to despair that it now looks highly unlikely that the TV debates will happen at all; firstly because it deprives that party of the opportunity to dispel perceptions that Ed Miliband is cut from an inferior cloth to David Cameron, but, perhaps more importantly considering the threat that the Greens play to Labour’s chances in the marginals, it will mean that voters see less of Natalie Bennett.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.