23 November 2015

If Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary doesn’t know what its defence policy is, then who does?


I’m never quite sure who greets the words “And now joining us in the studio is Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle” with the most horror: me or Maria Eagle.

Me, because listening to Ms Eagle tie herself in knots over the simplest questions is excruciatingly awful. Or her, because she is the one having to do it.

There is now something comically absurd about any news organisation inviting almost any member of the Shadow Cabinet to give an interview on any aspect of Labour party policy.

Mostly because the Labour party doesn’t appear to have any agreed policies on anything. Not that this stops them from trying to pretend they do.

Hence why Ms Eagle appeared on the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 Today programme this morning before some seven million listeners to discuss Labour’s position on the question of Britain bombing Syria.

It was a painful experience for everyone: John Humphrys, Maria Eagle, but most of all the listeners.

Ms Eagle knew what the interview would be about when she agreed to do it and, as the Shadow Defence Secretary, she might be expected to know the answers to some pretty straightforward questions about her party’s defence policy.

And yet she failed to answer a single one.

Even simple questions like: “What are you going to do?” were met with “It all depends… We are in a position in which we will make a decision after the Prime Minister puts forward his rationale.”

From this we learned that, while the Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to set out the case for Britain to join bombing raids on Syria in the Commons later this week, the Labour party still has no idea yet what its response will be.

Was she in favour “in principle” of Britain bombing Isil in Syria? No, that depended on a lot of things too. It was not possible, she insisted, “to be clear on [her] own position”. No, Maria, it most certainly wasn’t.

So just days after Paris suffered a terror attack by Isil and only hours after Brussels was effectively shut down over fears of a similarly deadly attack, the Labour party has absolutely no idea what it is going to do about it. Bombing Syria may or may not be the solution, but they still don’t know either way.

And this is the problem.

Maria Eagle went on the Today programme to talk about Labour’s defence policy when she doesn’t know what that policy is, whether there is indeed a policy at all and, if so, whether it is going to change by four o’clock on Thursday.

Despite being Shadow Defence Secretary, she does not represent the views of the Labour party leader, the Shadow Cabinet, possibly not the Parliamentary Labour party and almost certainly not the party membership.

We now have a Labour Opposition that does not know what it wants to do about anything – including the defence of this country – unless or until it hears what the Tories want to do and then it will probably oppose that. Until it changes its mind. Or maybe not. No one knows. Least of all them.

This, it seems, is what passes for political debate in the world of the Hard Left from whence the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell hail.

It would barely pass muster in a sixth form debating society and it certainly won’t wash with British voters who have an annoying habit of wanting to know where politicians stand on particular issues, and especially on matters of life and death.

Maria Eagle can go on the radio every day of the week but until she can definitively tell us what Labour policy is, we may as well just turn our radios off and put everyone – including Maria Eagle – out of their misery.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and broadcaster. A former political editor and LBC Radio presenter, she is a regular on TV shows such as Question Time and Have I Got News For You, and on Radio 4’s Any Questions.