Summer lethargy is not a good look for Labour right now

Silly season can be a time of opportunity for dynamic politicians. Where is the opposition's fighting spirit?

No-one is surprised when the news thins out during the summer months. The season when silly stories get bumped up the agenda even has its own name. It’s a thing. And it’s a thing that politicians know about and for which they plan. They can take advantage of the media lull in one of two ways.

First, they can have a bit of a rest, read some books, think some thoughts and, if they are diligent, catch up on some constituency contact. (That can be arduous so it is unkind to claim MPs all benefit from jumbo holidays.)

Second, they can try to generate a few headlines, knowing that journalists are hungry for stories and will give a more lavish airing to something that, at busier times, would be buried.

Conservative co-chairman Grant Shapps has had a go at that second approach. He made a speech yesterday attacking Labour for all the usual things. It’s the same old trade union-obeying, Brussels-fancying, benefit-boosting, immigrant-coddling, debt-ramping, tax-hiking party, said Shapps. Or words to that effect. The speech was briefed out a day early and picked up some decent coverage given how void it was of serious content. In places it was downright bizarre:

Who here shares my appreciation of the phone’s flash – which doubles as a torch – when you’ve come home late and dropped your keys?

Who indeed, Grant?

The intervention briefly threatened to make the wrong kind of headlines. Shapps appeared, in a question and answer session after the speech, to admit having taken a cavalier approach to employment law in a company he set up. Tory sources clarified afterwards that he was speaking illustratively and not referring to anything he had done. A minor gaffe flared up and was hosed down. Someone from Labour muttered something disapproving. I forget what.

In other news, a Tory peer and government advisor appeared to say that environmental degradation should be visited on the North-East because no one would care or even notice. He then clarified that he had meant the North-West. Jeremy Hunt was slapped down by the High Court. A judge ruled that the health secretary had acted unlawfully in trying to shut down services at Lewisham hospital. Labour's response? A statement saying the Tories are out of touch, adding that you can’t trust them with the NHS. Obvs.

The absence of opposition energy is mystefying. Since pretty much anything with a flicker of political content can make headlines, why doesn’t Labour have a campaign lined up to seize the initiative? Where is the shadow cabinet? Where is everybody? The most visible opposition figure in the past week has been Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, who has valiantly and very effectively taken on the issue of violent misogyny online.

But as far as I can tell, since parliament rose for recess, there hasn’t been a big news story generated deliberately by Labour to discomfort the Tories or Lib Dems. Ed Miliband’s MPs may be working hard behind the scenes in their constituencies but as a dynamic force for taking on the coalition they really are on holiday. The Archbishop of Canterbury is currently doing a more agile job of sustained moral activism. I am not alone in thinking the opposition look oddly lethargic. Most Labour people I have spoken to wonder why their party has given up politics for the summer.

The usual defence from Ed Miliband’s aides against charges of this kind is that the obsessions of the Westminster bubble are a peripheral concern. There is a bigger picture, the say. Work is being done on some interesting announcements that will rock the political landscape. I have been told many times by allies of the Labour leader to “watch this space.”  The other standard response is to bemoan the ineffectiveness of the front bench. Ed can’t do it all himself, say Miliband’s friends. The rest of the team need to do some of the “heavy lifting”. It is a fair point. If the hapless Grant Shapps – trader in internet snake oil under a dodgy alias  - can grab the spotlight for a political cabaret turn, why can’t a shadow cabinet minister plant a half-decent story in the middle of silly season?

It feels as if Labour has lost its mojo. This is partly a function of being adrift between two positions. There is the old default of decrying everything the coalition does. Then there is the new challenge: credibly promising a better alternative in recognition of the fiscal squeeze that will endure beyond the next election. Labour has relinquished the first proposition – it isn’t pledging to reverse the cuts or spend much more – but it doesn’t have clear attack lines based on the second one. It is in a limbo of hating what the coalition is doing without being able to articulate what it would do differently.

Some clarity is promised at the annual conference in September. Some, but not all of the plan for a brighter Labour future will be revealed. (“Watch this space.”) This hiatus is consistent with Miliband’s long-game strategy. His friends talk up his unflappable nature and the way that he is not distracted by the daily froth of 24-hour news, nor by the chatter of impatient commentators on New Statesman blogs. He expects the Tories’ reliance on shabby, short-term tactics to unravel. Cameron’s superficiality and complacency will be exposed.

It is all supposed to unfold rather like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Cameron is cocky and energetic at the start, supremely sure of his race-winning credentials. Miliband is wiser, appearing slower but ultimately more steady.

There is just one problem with the analogy. The tortoise didn’t win the race by having a more profound grasp of economic imbalances in the race track. He won because the hare took a nap. If the hare had carried on running at his usual pace, he would have crossed the finish line first. Right now, of the two parties, it isn’t the Tories who look as if they are lying down prematurely.

Now is not the time for a nice quiet sit down. Image: Getty

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.