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Theory: Yvette Cooper is stuck in a stable time loop

The chair of the Commons home affairs select committee believes that we haven't been talking about immigration enough. 

I’m worried about Yvette Cooper. Is she stuck in a stable time loop? Is she desperately trying to escape it, banging on the walls of a bubble in the Web of Time, frantically trying to get a message to the outside world to send help, and quickly?

Or maybe she’s suffering from anteretrograde amnesia, unable to form new memories.

I just ask because Cooper is in the news today calling for “a debate” on immigration, saying that “there just wasn’t much debate about it; it was one of those things that people just thought was a bit too difficult to talk about”.

Really? She seems to be talking about the accession of 10 countries to the European Union, most of them from Eastern Europe, and bringing with them a boom in migration into Britain. Except that cannot possibly be right, because I distinctly recall Tony Blair giving a speech about immigration, rather a long one, in Dover in 2005.  That’s right; perhaps worrying that the speech wouldn’t be sufficiently on the nose in its own right, they did it quite literally by the white cliffs of Dover.

Still, Tony Blair hasn’t been leader of the Labour party for a decade now. Perhaps she means under his successor, Gordon Brown. But wait, that cannot be right either, because in his first speech to Labour party conference as leader he promised “British jobs for British workers” and when he kicked off his re-election campaign he did so with a speech about, you guessed it, immigration.

Maybe she means after that? Well, Andy Burnham made talking about immigration a central plank of his campaign for the Labour leadership, not once but twice. Still, he didn’t win, and perhaps Ed Miliband didn’t ever talk about immigration, apart from when he engraved the promise to have “controls” on immigration on an eight foot stone and brought a nifty series of mugs on that same theme.

If he really did sit mute for five years as leader, that seems a pretty damning verdict on him, and particularly his shadow home secretary. I can’t remember who that was. I think it rhymed with “Trooper”.

Then of course, Andy Burnham ran for the leadership again and once again immigration was a central theme: he had a whole spiel about some guy he met who had no friends at work because everyone else spoke Polish. That was in 2015. I seem to recall that Yvette Cooper ran for the Labour leadership, and went so far as to talk about immigration, suggesting that Labour had been too “squeamish” to discuss the issue.

At least I think that’s what happened. I’m finding it hard to tell with these Labour leadership campaigns. They blur into a fungible mess: basically, Twitter gets very angry and then Jeremy Corbyn wins.

And if I’m not mistaken, literally days before a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union, about half of the Labour party was suddenly seized by a desire to talk about the need to “reform” free movement. As doing this was probably the least helpful intervention imaginable, I find it hard to believe that politicians in general, and Labour politicians in particular, have a problem with talking about immigration.

It seems to me that Britain’s problem is not a deficit of debates about immigration, but a surplus. It feels as if, actually, we’re pretty clear what people think about immigration. About a quarter of the country thinks that immigration is a good thing and three-quarters are varying degrees of hostile to it.

I really don’t think what we need from our politicians is another “debate” about immigration. What we need is a policy that isn’t inhumane towards people seeking to come here, that sustains our economic model, keeps our universities world-leading, and can achieve public support.

My suspicion is that Cooper knows this too, but because she doesn’t know what that system would look like, she’s just going to the use the word “debate” again.

Unless she really is stuck in a time loop.  

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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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.