Is this the week an ancient prophecy came to pass?
In 2015, in the throes of a heated general election campaign, then-prime minister David Cameron issued an infamous ultimatum. Vote Conservative, he declared, and enjoy an era of “stability and strong Government”; dare opt for the alternative and “chaos with Ed Miliband” awaits — a “simple and inescapable choice”.
The electorate, cornered and quivering, took Cameron’s advice. “Chaos with Ed Miliband”, that most perilous counterfactual, was avoided. And, lo, as Labour once more retreated to the electoral wilderness, the defeated and downtrodden Miliband resigned his post.
With “Red Ed” vanquished, Cameron’s plan to retire quietly at the end of a full second term moved firmly onto the political horizon. George Osborne, promoted as Cameron’s official number two after Nick Clegg’s unceremonious ouster, prepared to assume the reins. Only the small matter of an “In-Out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union stood between the Conservative Party and total Cameroon victory.
Of course, the big-picture story from the last eight years of British politics is that things did not play out how Cameron hoped or expected. Rather, in the nine years since Cameron’s social media strategists defined their election terms, Britain has cycled through five prime ministers, seven chancellors and seven foreign secretaries.
The latest holder of this latter post is, of course, one David Cameron — now draped in ermine as Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. As for George Osborne, he co-helms a podcast with onetime adversary Ed Balls. And what of the ex-PM’s vanquished opponent”? Well, Ed Miliband serves loyally in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet as energy spokesperson and de facto elder statesman — (intervening period of success notwithstanding).
From time to time, Miliband references the “chaos with…” line as a scathing meta-critique of recent Conservative governance. His loyal supporters surely sigh they retweet. However, in recent days, it has not been the #Milifandom calling back to Cameron’s pre-Brexit ultimatum — but Conservative MPs. The reason for this is simple: the Labour Party has gotten itself into a right old mess over its flagship policy, the now-scaled-back Green Prosperity Fund.
Labour drastically scales back flagship Green Prosperity Plan as it ditches £28bn target
Indeed, after weeks of feverish speculation, the fate of the £28 billion pledge appears to have been sealed — with the much-contested arbitrary figure replaced by a series of new, but significantly smaller, arbitrary figures. The thinking is that, because they are in the single digits, they can probably be swallowed by a distrusting electorate.
It was Miliband, of course, who fought hardest for the GPP behind the scenes. Widely considered to be the policy’s intellectual progenitor, the £28 billion pledge was his pet-project. In this way, the shadow energy secretary’s ode to radicalism, entitled GO BIG: How To Fix Our World, published in 2021 made clear his positioning. The account’s driving narrative was that if Miliband could do it all again, the “EdStone” would be built some feet taller and wider — allowing space for riskier commandments. Both in government and opposition, the ex-Labour leader counselled, progressive parties must “go big”.
In the end, this was the ideological terrain that Rachel Reeves traversed, apparently enthusiastically, when she announced the GPP as part of her 2021 conference speech — her first in post. And, subsequently, in months that followed that fateful fete, the GPP occupied an exalted place in Labour’s messaging as a microcosmic illustration of its abiding ambition.
But it was not to last. Two years later, in the summer of 2023, the burden of political and economic change was beginning to exact a heavy toll. Interest rates had vaulted, Boris Johnson had made for Liz Truss who made way for Rishi Sunak — and, in turn, the ideological terrain Labour felt comfortable traversing had shifted. In the wake of the Conservatives’ Trussite tailspin, Labour persistently pilloried its opponents for plundering Treasury coffers. But this strategy inevitably constrained Starmer, too; he now had to hone a pitch that could live up to his high bar of fiscal restraint and be sold, simultaneously, as worthy of Britain’s challenges.
Charging on the frontline of this approach, “iron chancellor” Reeves soon resolved that £140 billion worth of capital investment in a single term was now politically untenable. And, after Conservative criticism refused to lapse in the wake of an initial mini U-turn in June 2023, internal scrutiny over the figure did not cease.
Still, in recent weeks, it has been far from clear that Keir Starmer shared the view of his shadow chancellor on Labour’s £28 billion. In fact, while Reeves refused to let the words “twenty”, “eight” or “billion” cross her lips in an interview with Sky News last week, Starmer — supposedly the duopoly’s senior partner — required little prompting. In a sit-down with Times Radio on Tuesday, he appeared to undercut Reeves by recommitting to the “desperately needed” £28 billion pledge.
But, with Labour’s internal divisions playing out across the media, Miliband was still nowhere to be seen. The implication is that he was privately — and therefore loyally — lobbying for his position. Thus, whether the shadow energy secretary was silent or silenced is also not really the point: because even in his absence, the chaos his GPP was inciting was plain for all to see.
Still, to suggest Miliband is to blame — even at all — for the developments of last week would be unfair. Because, as Labour leader, the buck stops with Starmer. Confounded by Conservative attacks and torn between divergent personal and ideological imperatives, it’s ultimately difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a test for Starmer; and one he, simply, has failed to pass.
Indeed, while Miliband has now publicly backed his leader’s new approach, the internal ructions the GPP’s demise has caused, and will continue to cause, will not be so easily put to rest. Taking an extremely long view — looking ahead to a Starmer government, even — might this be the week future historians cite as when his political operation began to crack and creak?
Is Keir Starmer sleepwalking into a Conservative trap on Labour’s £28bn green pledge?
Our post-£28 billion politics
Of Keir Starmer’s notorious “U-turns” — as the Labour leader has ruthlessly exorcised the twin spectres of “tax and spend” from his pre-election offering — this latest one on the GPP stands above the rest. And it is so significant, in short, because of the paradox that underpins it.
For, while Starmer has ostensibly caved to Conservative criticism in order to neutralise it, this is still a manifest win for Rishi Sunak and his strategists. In this way, what happens next is entirely beyond doubt: the scaling down of the GPP will be met with the Conservative Party scaling up its attacks. Tory apparatchiks will continue to pillory Starmer’s clean energy commitments while lampooning him as a meandering leader, who stands for little regardless. After all, the only Conservative attack line that features higher than “Keir Starmer’s plan is dangerous” is “Keir Starmer doesn’t have a plan”.
Ultimately, in the wake of the GPP’s demise, we can expect Starmer’s policy offering to get smaller before it gets larger again — as the Labour leader, (1), continues to respond to increasingly ruthless Conservative attacks with policy changes; and, (2), pursues the natural logic of its climate climate down and checks his ambition in other areas.
Only time will tell if this proves the defining dynamic that shapes how politics is conducted between now and a general election. But, for this week at least, it was “chaos with Ed Mililband” with Keir Starmer. The Conservative Party and Rishi Sunak will pray it continues.
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Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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