A block of flats in Bath - the government plans to reduce the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour is "sympathetic" to reducing benefit cap to £23,000, says Harman

Acting leader's statement shows how the Tories have shifted the terms of debate on welfare. 

Harriet Harman's well-crafted response to the Queen's Speech will enhance her reputation as one of Labour's finest parliamentarians. David Cameron and herself, she declared, had one thing in common: "We're both, by our own admission, interim leaders". Of the SNP's attempt to occupy Dennis Skinner's seat, she warned: "The lion might be roaring in Scotland but don't mess with the Beast of Bolsover". Ayesha Hazarika, Harman's long-standing aide and a former stand-up comedian, is likely to have had a hand in those lines. 

Owing to her status as acting leader, there was little notable political content in Harman's address. She warned of "a fragile economy, a fragile constitution and sadly, fragile public services too" and repeated the traditional mantra that "you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS" ("You'll see," she said in response to Conservative jeers).

But Harman broke new ground when she announced that Labour was "sympathetic" to the government's plan to reduce the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. That Harman felt it necessary to make this immediately clear shows how George Osborne has succeeded in shifting the terms of debate on welfare - the centre ground has moved. Labour has resolved that it cannot afford to oppose such a measure on moral grounds - any objections must be purely pragmatic. In his subsequent speech, Cameron seized on Harman's words, declaring that if Labour believed in "aspiration" (as its leadership candidates continually proclaim) it would support his plan to lower the cap and use the savings to fund apprenticeships.

Should the party vote with the Conservatives it will face the opposition of the SNP (which has vowed to resist all of the Tories' welfare cuts) and a significant number of its own backbenchers. But Harman did warn that the government would have to ensure that a lower cap "doesn’t put children into poverty, increase homelessness, or end up costing more than it saves". She said that this could be achieved by making sure that "The jobs are there for people to move into; the childcare is there, particularly for lone parents; and there are adequate funds for discretionary housing payments." Should the government refuse to meet these conditions it will be hard for Labour to justify supporting the measure. The danger, as in the case of the previous benefit cap vote, is that it ends up in a deadly halfway house: neither fully supporting nor fully opposing welfare cuts - and alienating all at once. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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.

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