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20 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:06pm

Why Conservative MPs aren’t laughing at the idea of a frontbench return for Ed Miliband

The former Labour leader is being tipped as a potential shadow chancellor – and many Tory MPs think it could be a masterstroke. 

By Stephen Bush

A while ago, I spent a lot of time asking current and former Treasury officials what they thought the requirements for a good shadow chancellor were, and who they thought might be able to do the job. One of the few ever-present names was that of Ed Miliband. Several in Keir Starmer’s inner circle are admirers of the former Labour leader, and got in touch to sing his praises after the piece. Now the Telegraph’s Harry Yorke has heard similar whispers.

My conversations left me wondering how that would work in practice. Miliband is one of just nine members of the current Parliamentary Labour Party to have held full cabinet rank – two of them, Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett are considered unlikely to want to return to frontline politics. He could undoubtedly do the job. But he also led the Labour party to defeat in 2015. What would people make of his return to frontbench life?

So I’ve been asking another question, this time of Conservative MPs and peers: imagine that Starmer becomes leader of the Labour party and that he names Miliband as shadow chancellor. Wouldn’t you feel that all your Christmases had come at once? (I’m afraid my question really was as leading as that.)

Slightly to my surprise, the response was largely positive. Several older Conservative MPs and peers highlighted that throughout his time in opposition, David Cameron’s shadow foreign secretary was William Hague, a man who led the Conservative party to their second-worst defeat in history, and that his welfare secretary was Iain Duncan Smith, whose MPs defenestrated him fearing he would lead them to an even more catastrophic defeat.

“I’m not saying: oh, yes, we would definitely be on the run. But actually, I think the difficulty [for Labour] with the sentence ‘Keir Starmer has become leader and has made Ed Miliband shadow chancellor’ is in the words ‘Keir Starmer’,” one Tory MP said to me. Their thinking – which was fairly widely shared – was that successful oppositions find a way to get all their best performers on the pitch – and that in terms of the week to week challenges of opposition, Miliband had shown that he had the necessary qualities to succeed at that part of the job. George Osborne was not particularly popular – but that was David Cameron’s job. What mattered was he could perform in the role of shadow chancellor and as chancellor, and was “ideologically at one with the principal” i.e. David Cameron.

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Those are all boxes that Miliband appears to tick. (With the major caveat that we don’t yet know how much of Starmer’s campaign positioning is just positioning.) And some of the veterans had an interesting take on it, which was that – and remember that what Conservative MPs elected before 2010 have over almost everyone in Labour is they know what it is like to be in opposition when the government has a comfortable majority – Miliband is an innately newsworthy figure. Things he says will get more coverage because he’s Ed Miliband than they would if it were, say, Stephen Timms or Angela Eagle, both politicians who tick all the aforementioned boxes as well.

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But there was also another calculation that several Conservatives made unprompted: that contrary to the conventional wisdom in the press, Starmer would be wise to leave the likes of Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves as select committee chairs, rather than bringing them back into the shadow cabinet.

“One thing that has changed since we came in is that the select committee chairs are major players,” one Tory MP said, “These guys have their own mandates because we elect them, they have good salaries, big staffs, and if they get it right they are a real pain for the government. And I’m thinking, if I’m Keir Starmer, isn’t Meg Hillier a lot more valuable to you as chair of the PAC than she is as shadow chief secretary?”

Another argued that an “underpriced” benefit that the next Labour leader will have is that where the select committee chairs had basically “declared UDI” from a leadership they largely regarded as ideologically unfit and essentially incompetent, they will be able to work much more closely with select committee chairs of their own party, with the potential to cause real headaches for the Prime Minister.

That would mean leaving talented committee chairs out of the shadow cabinet – which we’d traditionally regard something of a mistake. But now that the appointment of select committee chairs is in the gift of the whole House, the next Labour leader might well benefit from seeking to work closely with the chairs they rate highly – rather than removing them from their posts entirely.