There’s been much talk about how Liam Byrne’s demotion from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet stems from his status as a Blairite. I say ‘much talk’ though I really mean a bit of talk by Kremlinologists among political columnists. Oh, and Grant Shapps.
Byrne may have been a thoughtful moderniser on the Labour front bench but the fact is that he has been unable to make headway against Iain Duncan Smith’s cack-handed welfare changes. Part of the reason is that Duncan Smith has had the right wing press lined up to smear anyone and everyone who receives anything from the state as a probably-fraudulent skiver (even though fraud represents a tiny proportion of the budget and the majority of benefit recipients are at work). Remember how Mick Philpott was meant to represent all benefit-claimants? But even if some of the press were against a nuanced argument, Liam Byrne should have made more traction than he has.
But Byrne will be remembered not for the arguments he has tried to make over the last few years, but for the letter he wrote as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2010. His flippant remark – ‘I am afraid there is no money left’ was allegedly aimed at his previous shadow, Philip Hammond, with whom he apparently enjoyed good relations. Byrne didn’t count on the Liberal Democrat, David Laws, taking his post instead. Laws needed to be seen as a serious player and established himself at the expense of Byrne. It was Liam Byrne’s very own Ratner moment, seriously damaging the Labour Party’s reputation and probably fatally damaging Byrne’s brand. Gerald Ratner’s business imploded in a matter of days. We can be surprised that Liam Byrne has lasted as long as he has.