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23 February 2022

Inside Politics: Labour’s cost of living split

Our politics team on shadow cabinet divisions, what Tom Tugendhat makes of Boris Johnson and whether it’s all over for the Good Law Project.

By Anoosh Chakelian, Freddie Hayward, Andrew Marr and Ailbhe Rea

Labour’s old tricks

It’s 2013 all over again at the shadow cabinet table, as Labour’s top team disagrees over whether to use the phrase “cost-of-living crisis” – the attack line chosen by the party when Ed Miliband was leader. The slogan is “nonsense” language, according to one shadow cabinet minister, who says it’s “not a phrase that anyone outside Westminster uses or that makes immediate sense to people”.

Labour’s team has been reluctant to abandon the phrase, however, as it is now being “reflected back” to the party through widespread media use. It also crops up in focus groups, but sceptics fear this is only because it is one of the party’s headings and that participants are “directed to it”. And while there are signs that the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, is distancing herself from the slogan, it is still sneaking into some of Labour’s press releases.

Anoosh Chakelian, Britain editor

China watch

The Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, was due to visit Taiwan from 20 February, but was forced to cancel the trip after several committee members tested positive for Covid-19. Tugendhat – a bold critic of the Chinese Communist Party – told the New Statesman that China is watching events in Europe closely. His fear is that Western toleration of borders being changed by force, “which is what we’re seeing in Europe today”, means that “at some point, we’re going to see borders changed by force around the world”. The implication for the security of Taiwan is obvious.

Tugendhat has said he will stand in the next Conservative leadership election. Does he believe Boris Johnson has responded well to the crisis in Ukraine? “I think various elements of the British state have responded well,” he said.

Freddie Hayward, political reporter

Bad news for the Good Law Project

The legal whacking the Good Law Project (GLP) suffered in February is big political news and ought to be treated as such. In recent years the GLP has been among the most innovative and the most infuriating groups for Conservative ministers.

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In mid-February, in a case the GLP brought jointly with race-equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, it was successfully established that two ministerial appointments – that of Dido Harding as interim chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and Mike Coupe as director of testing at NHS Test and Trace – were in breach of the public sector equality duty set out in the Equality Act.

What follows from that isn’t clear. But in the same judgment the two senior, respected judges, Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift, attacked the GLP’s right to have brought the case in the first place. It could not be right, they said, that an organisation had drafted its objectives so widely “that just about any conceivable public law error by any public authority falls within its remit… The claim by the Good Law Project fails in its entirety.”

This dismissal caused an explosion of relief in Tory circles. Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time of the appointments, tweeted his delight and denounced Jolyon Maugham, the controversial barrister who directs the group.

If this finally scuppers the GLP, that would be significant. The group currently has 25 full-time staff, a total expected to rise to 40 by the end of the year, around 30,000 people donate every month to it and its budget is £4m-£6m a year.

So, is it over? Maugham told the New Statesman that the GLP had often chosen partners with whom to act, sometimes working through them, and sometimes acts alone, and insisted that only the “mix” might be changed by the ruling.

Andrew Marr, political editor

Coventry united

Keir Starmer faced calls to apologise after he was accused of “sneering” at the city of Coventry when asked about action by bin men, who are striking in an industrial dispute with the area’s Labour-run council. The trade union Unite has threatened to withdraw funding from Labour unless Starmer backs the strike, potentially deepening the party’s reported financial troubles.

Labour’s uneasy relationship with unions continued on 18 February after the shadow trade minister Bill Esterson accidentally crossed a picket line at Sheffield University, where lecturers are striking over precarious pay and conditions as part of the UK-wide University and College Union (UCU) action. Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, tweeted: “Let’s hope this is a misunderstanding.” Oliver Coppard, Labour’s candidate for South Yorkshire mayor, who joined Esterson that day, issued an extensive apology for crossing the picket line in error. The Labour press office, however, told Esterson to stay silent.

Ailbhe Rea, political correspondent

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls