Yvette Cooper at the Labour leadership GMB hustings. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Yvette Cooper delivers unruffled performance at Press Gallery lunch

The Labour leadership candidate – often criticised for her lack of personality – appeared relaxed and amusing at a lunch for journalists.

Yvette Cooper, who was regarded as the best performer at last night's Labour leadership hustings, again impressed before the Westminster Press Gallery this lunchtime. The shadow home secretary didn't make any policy waves but she was relaxed, amusing and resonated authority and competence (despite a bad cold). 

Cooper devoted a significant section of her address to the Greek crisis, reminding journalists that Ed Balls isn't the only trained economist in her household. The Labour leadership candidate, who, like her husband, won a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, warned that the EU and the British government were displaying the same complacency that was shown at the start of the financial crisis. 

"There seems to be a growing view about how to handle Greece that is similar to the kind of view that we saw in the US Treasury over Lehman Brothers bank, where the view seemed to be that we can somehow cut them off, cauterise the problem by letting them go. And we saw what happened - the US Treasury thought that they could do that over Lehman Brothers and in fact it was catastrophic and caused huge instability in the financial markets. So my warning to the government and across Europe is do not do a Lehman Brothers over Greece, do not think that you can simply cauterise a problem without there being huge financial and economic instability. We need a long-term solution to Greece, this has been delayed for too long". She recalled that as an economics journalist at the Independent in the 1990s, she always believed that Greece and Italy should not join the euro. 

On the Labour leadership, Cooper stuck to her strategy of positioning herself as the centrist candidate between Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. She warned against trying to "rerun the 2015 election" (a swipe at Burnham) and against trying to "rerun previous elections" (a swipe at the Blair-esque Kendall). It is an approach that leaves her well-placed to win second preference votes should either of her rivals drop out.  

But aware of the charge that she has simply defined against other candidates and failed to offer a positive vision, she emphasised the importance of "new ideas" and that Labour was successful, as in 1945, 1964 and 1997, when it owned the future. She frequently referenced the digital revolution and the transformation of the labour market, and the need to treat business as an ally, rather than an enemy.

As one of two female candidates in the race, Cooper also, unsurprisingly, emphasised the potential benefits of making her Labour's first female leader. "David Cameron has a woman problem ... Maybe we should give David Cameron an even bigger woman problem," she said. Many in Labour have long believed that the Prime Minister and whoever succeeds him (most likely Boris Johnson or George Osborne) would find it far harder to dismiss a female leader. While there are obvious cards that the Tories could play against Andy Burnham ("the union man", "Mid-Staffs"), it would be tricker to pin down Cooper. Jokes about Ed Balls would simply appear crude and misogynistic and his enforced exit from parliament means this subject is even more off-limits.

Cooper's biggest obstacle, however, remains her past service in government. As the sole candidate elected in 2010, Kendall is able to argue that only she can offer "a fresh start". But Cooper handled the "baggage" charge well, asserting that "this is a tough job and it needs experience" and adding: "I make no apology for having been the minister who ran a department with a £100bn budget, for having brought in the Future Jobs Fund and for having been the minister who rolled out Sure Start". When asked how she felt about comparisons between herself and Hillary Clinton ("cool"), she again used her experience to her advantage, recalling that she worked on Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and sported the slogan "I'm backing Hillary's husband". Asked whether Balls would join her on stage if she won the leadership, she replied that he would not and attacked the "outdated" and "uncomfortable" role of the political spouse. 

"I had already when Ed [Balls] stood last time in the 2010 leadership election ruled out ever joining him on stage as a political wife because I think we should be long beyond the era of expecting any politician to have the political wives standing next to them," she said . "Certainly the Labour Party Conference has always been uncomfortable at the way in which the spouses were expected to play that role ... I think that role in terms of the party conference is an outdated one."

Among Labour MPs, it is increasingly Cooper, not Burnham, who is regarded as the true frontrunner. After her performances in the last 24 hours, the political world at large will be watching her candidacy far more closely. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.