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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear