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

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.