Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham takes part in a hustings in The Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs on July 10, 2015 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Burnham agrees to abstain on welfare bill - but threatens opposition as leader

Leadership candidate accepts Harman's position but says he will oppose the bill at Third Reading in the absence of "major changes". 

Ahead of tonight's vote on the welfare bill, Andy Burnham has written to all Labour MPs outlining his stance. The leadership candidate, who helped persuade Harriet Harman to table an amendment to the legislation, writes that "in truth, it [the amendment] could be stronger". As I reported on Friday, Burnham was unhappy at its "weak wording"

But after arguing at shadow cabinet last week that Labour should vote against the bill if its amendment is defeated, the shadow health secretary has fallen into line by agreeing to abstain. He writes: "Collective responsibility is important and it is what I would expect as Leader of our Party. It is why I will be voting for our Reasoned Amendment and, if it is defeated, abstaining on the Bill." Had he broken the whip and voted against the legislation he would, by convention, have had to resign from the shadow cabinet. But Burnham adds that in the absence of "major changes" to the bill at commitee stage, he will, if elected leader, vote against it at Third Reading. 

By writing to MPs two hours before the debate begins, Burnham has cemented his status as the leader of the revolt against Harman. But while this is natural positioning in a left-leaning leadership contest, several of Burnham's colleagues are unhappy at his stance. By publicly revealing his disagreement with Harman at shadow cabinet, they believe that he helped the Tories to exploit Labour divisions and made it harder to demand "loyalty" in the future (in the words of one shadow cabinet minister). 

Meanwhile, in a sign of how he will occupy territory to Labour's left, Tim Farron has announced that the Lib Dems will vote against the bill. The new leader said: "The truth is the Tories do not have to cut £12bn from welfare: they are choosing to. The Liberal Democrats will always stand up for families. We will not let the Conservatives, through choice, and the Labour party, through silence, unpick our welfare system."

Here's Burnham's letter in full.

 

Dear Colleague

 

I wanted to update you on my position ahead of today’s vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

 

The Party has come to a position over the last week and we now have a Reasoned Amendment which sets out our opposition to the Bill.

 

As you know, I was very clear last weekend that we could not simply abstain on this Bill and that we needed to set out where we have agreement with reforms, but more importantly, where we strongly disagree.  For example, I have said that, as Leader, I will oppose the two-child policy.

 

I also strongly oppose the changes in this Bill that will increase child poverty whilst at the same time abolishing the child poverty reduction target.  I will always defend our record as a Labour Government of supporting low-paid people in work, and into work, through our tax credits.

 

For these reasons, I have led calls for the Party to change its position.

 

Our Reasoned Amendment sets out clearly our opposition to many aspects of the Bill. In truth, it could be stronger but it declines to give the Bill a Second Reading and, therefore, voting for it tonight is the right thing to do.

 

The Tories want to use this period to brand us in the way they did in 2010. We must not allow that to happen. 

 

Collective responsibility is important and it is what I would expect as Leader of our Party. It is why I will be voting for our Reasoned Amendment and, if it is defeated, abstaining on the Bill.

 

But I can reassure you that this is only the beginning of a major fight with the Tories. I am determined that we will fight this regressive Bill line by line, word by word in Committee.  If the Government do not make the major changes during Committee stage, then, as Leader, I will oppose this Bill at Third Reading.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Andy Signature

 

Andy Burnham

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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