Liam Byrne is not going down without a fight. After months of rumours that he’s set for the chop in the forthcoming reshuffle, the shadow work and pensions secretary delivered an unusually fiery speech that rivalled Len McCluskey’s on the decibel meter.
Byrne, one of “the Blairites” that McCluskey suggested in his interview with me should be ignored or sacked, threw numerous crowd-pleasing blows at the Tories. He declared that “young people fighting for work in East Birmingham have got a damn sight more grit than you need to get through Eton College”, assailed Michael Gove for “blaming the poor for the temerity to turn up at a food bank” (“he should be ashamed”) and remarked of Iain Duncan Smith: “They say to err is human. But if you want someone to really screw it up you send for Iain Duncan Smith. And Conference that’s why we need to fire him.”
After Ed Miliband’s announcement on the bedroom tax on Friday, Byrne was able to proudly declare that Labour would repeal the measure, a pledge that he had long pushed for against a sceptical Ed Balls. Again seeking to win over those on the Labour left for whom he has become something of a hate figure, he said: “And I say to David Cameron, Atos are a disgrace, you should sack them and sack them now. And yes Conference we say the Bedroom Tax should be axed and axed now and if David Cameron won’t drop this hated tax, then we will repeal it.”
Whether this is enough for Byrne to stay in his post remains doubtful. The view among many in the party is that if Labour is to reach a position on welfare that both its MPs and the electorate can live with, then it is essential for Miliband to appoint a shadow work and pensions secretary who is more trusted by backbenchers. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a less “Blairite” figure can sell Labour’s new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP. Others points out that his continued presence on the frontbench provides the Tories with repeated opportunities to remind voters of his infamous “I’m afraid there is no money” note. In the words of one MP, “it is the gift that keeps giving.”
With Miliband keen to promote “the new generation”, and avoid his government looking like a set of New Labour retreads, Byrne remains one of those likely to be asked to make way. Rachel Reeves, who has long been in line for a promotion, and who is one of the party’s sharpest economic brains, is the most obvious candidate to replace him.