Miliband moves to close down Balls speculation

The Labour leader has enough tricky policy questions coming his way. He doesn't want to be quizzed about personnel too.

Ed Miliband, on the Andrew Marr programme today, when asked about speculation that his brother David might be brought back to Labour’s front line to serve as shadow chancellor, said “there is no vacancy” – which, of course, there isn’t. That is a stock formula for equivocation disguised as certainty. It sounds like a definitive backing of the incumbent without closing down any longer term options. There is no vacancy now. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be one. But Miliband also said that Ed Balls would "absolutely" be Shadow Chancellor going into the election campaign – a level of support that has hitherto been lacking.

The will-he-won’t-he sack Balls debate is a Westminster parlour game that falls in and out of fashion every few months. There has been a particularly intense bout of speculation recently (about which I blogged more extensively here). Miliband’s dilemma is that he wants to keep options open in case it becomes apparent that Labour’s lack of an effective economic message – or, rather, lack of a popular message-giver – is in danger of costing the election, but if he allows speculation to rumble on it overshadows the rest of his political project. Soap opera and pop psychology easily squeeze policy development and nuanced positioning out of the news. That is especially true when policy development is slow and positioning is cautious.

Miliband will have been particularly keen to kill off the Balls-related speculation as he is about to undertake a risky political manoeuvre that is not universally supported in the shadow cabinet and the party. He confirmed today that he has no intention of matching David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership – a gambit the Prime Minister is universally expected to make in a speech on 22nd January. As I reported in my column last week, Miliband intends to take what he and his allies see as the statesmanlike moral high ground, attacking Cameron for gambling with Britain’s vital alliances and destabilising the economy in the process purely to salvage his position in a frustrated and rebellious Tory party.

But there are those in the Labour party who worry that Miliband will not be able to sustain that position through an election campaign. He will constantly be asked why the Tories feel confident asking the people for their view on Europe while Labour appears to be running scared. Even those in the shadow cabinet who support Miliband’s current position recognise that the going will be tough. (Much depends on whether the Liberal Democrats acquiesce to the referendum pledge or back the Miliband line – Nick Clegg has the power to leave one of the Labour or Tory leaders looking painfully isolated on an issue of  national significance, a rare bit of leverage the Lib Dem leader will no doubt be keen to prolong and exploit.)

Either way, Miliband does not want to spend the next few weeks, when he will have to answer plenty of difficult questions about his holding-pattern policies on everything from welfare to the economy to Europe, also answering questions about whether his shadow chancellor is a temporary feature or a permanent fixture.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”