Bill Esterson: “We’re clearly going to be worse off outside the European Union”

Esterson says he has a “very, very healthy relationship” with the Federation of Small Businesses, while the Institute for Directors and the CBI – lobby groups representing bosses and big firms respectively – are now starting to take the party seriously, despite the fiery rhetoric that comes from a party that’s vowed to radically alter the balance of power in Britain.

AIWA! NO!/MATT FOSTER,The House Magazine//As some high-profile Tory MPs change their tone towards industry, Bill Esterson says Labour is now “the true party of small business”. But does he have the policies to back up the claim? Matt Foster speaks to the Shadow Minister.
Bill Esterson is the shadow minister for small business
Bill Esterson is the shadow minister for small business Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Firstly, an apology. This interview is not accompanied by snaps of Bill Esterson in “a very stylish pink top hat, a pair of glasses and a pink jacket” – but the pictures are out there somewhere. As we pull up a chair in his Portcullis House office, the Shadow Business Minister reveals that he’s just undergone a speedy change of clothes after donning the snazzy gear for a breast cancer charity’s flagship ‘Wear It Pink’ campaign. Sadly, the riotous headgear is long gone as we sit down to dig into the detail of his party’s pitch to business – but thanks to Tory heavyweight Boris Johnson, Esterson’s brief is hardly lacking a flash of colour at the moment.

The ex-foreign secretary made headlines over the summer with reports of a foul-mouthed tirade against firms warning about the impact of a hard Brexit – and it’s a broadside Esterson and his colleagues on the Labour frontbench are keen to exploit as the party gears up for its annual conference. “The Tories have, in the immortal words of Boris Johnson, told business to f*** off,” he smiles. “Which rather leaves a space open for us.”

The Shadow Small Business Minister, who also has the Brexit-dominated international trade portfolio in his brief, argues that Conservative eurosceptics have launched “a pretty full-frontal attack on businesses large and small” in recent months, by directly hitting out at firms who question Britain’s departure from the EU. It’s a charge strengthened, Esterson says, when Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab chooses to lay into retailer John Lewis’ claim that Brexit is partly to blame for a sharp slump in profits. The Labour frontbencher says Raab’s decision to start “attacking a great British brand for their honesty” shows that Boris Johnson’s “F*** business” attitude hasn’t left the cabinet with him.

As well as blasting the Conservatives on Brexit, the Labour frontbencher has even gone so far as to claim that Labour is now “the true party of small business” – an audacious bid for ground traditionally occupied by the Tories. The shadow minister clearly believes his party has done enough heavy-lifting to justify the bold claim, however. “The policies that we’ve been developing now for a number of years are wholly on the side of businesses who want to do the right thing,” he says. “We support businesses who want to play by the rules, who want to get on by treating their staff properly, by paying their suppliers on time, by taking a responsible attitude to the environment, by employing people on the basis of ability rather than who they know.”

Esterson says he has a “very, very healthy relationship” with the Federation of Small Businesses, while the Institute for Directors and the CBI – lobby groups representing bosses and big firms respectively – are now starting to take the party seriously, despite the fiery rhetoric that comes from a party that’s vowed to radically alter the balance of power in Britain. There has, Esterson claims, been a “sea change in the attitudes of the business community towards Labour” since last year’s general election, and he says it makes “perfect sense that the party of the worker should be the party of business too”.

“If you look at the most successful economies in the world – the IMF and the OECD both say this – they are characterised by being highly paid, by being unionised,” he says. “If you pay your workers well it means they’ve got more money to go on the goods and services produced by business. It’s actually common sense – and I think increasingly businesses can see a sense in what we’re saying.”

Esterson – who enjoys a thumping majority in his Sefton Central seat and has loyally served Jeremy Corbyn in the same job ever since the left-wing leader first seized the reins of power in 2015 – has also had plenty of time to get stuck into his brief, and he says he wants to make sure Labour is in a position “to support, encourage and put in place the conditions for businesses in this country to thrive” in the event of another snap election. The party has tried to woo smaller firms by promising a crackdown on unscrupulous business giants who fail to pay their subcontractors on time, while it’s also pledged to help them access capital more easily with a National Investment Bank and exempt them from the hike to corporation tax that Labour is planning for big companies.

The Shadow Business Minister also reveals for the first time that Labour is working on plans to emulate the United States’ Small Business Administration (SBA), a self-funding federal agency that has helped to incubate big American success stories like Apple and Nike. Although the proposals are some way off completion, Esterson says “a one-stop shop for business start-ups and for growth is really important”, and he wants an SBA-style agency to offer British firms the kind of accounting advice, help accessing finance, and mentoring that the SBA provides across the pond. “I’d love to see something like that in this country,” he says. “If we can develop our small business sector, make it much stronger, see far more of them succeed and continue to grow and thrive, we can create more of our own medium-sized firms and give greater stability and strength to the UK economy.”

While it’s clear Labour is working hard to build bridges with the small business community, then, the party’s own stance on Brexit means it’s hardly immune from some of the same criticisms currently being levelled at the Tories. Esterson deftly ducks the question when asked to name a single upside of leaving the European Union for small firms. “Look, I voted to Remain in the European Union,” he says. “I don’t want us to leave the European Union. But, you know, we’ve accepted the result. I don’t think it particularly gets us anywhere to be visiting questions of whether we’re going to be better off – we’re clearly going to be worse off outside the European Union – and businesses are.”

He argues that Labour’s so-called ‘Jobs First’ Brexit – backing membership of the EU’s customs union through the two-year transition period before seeking a fresh customs deal after that – will soften the impact on smaller firms and avoid “falling off a cliff” under the no-deal scenario being talked up by some Brexiteers. There are, however, no signs that Labour’s vision of Brexit would necessarily be any more palatable to the EU, which has repeatedly said its four freedoms are “indivisible” and warned Britain against trying to “cherry-pick” the bits of membership it likes. Isn’t there a risk that Labour – pledging to secure full access to the single market while also ending the free movement of people – risks overpromising its pitch to small business?

Again, the Labour frontbencher parries the question. “If you look at the alternatives that we’re offering – you know, a new, comprehensive customs union, maintaining the regulatory environment that we have now, ensuring we have common standards – those are all guaranteed to avoid disruption post-Brexit. I think that’s where the business community is. People have accepted the result of the referendum in the business community by and large, as has the Labour party, but it doesn’t mean we have to be – that we shouldn’t be arguing for arrangements that look after the economy, business and jobs. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

It’s fair to say Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow team has chopped and changed during his sometimes-tumultuous leadership of Labour, with rebellions, a vote of no confidence and sharp ideological differences resulting in frequent reshuffles of the party’s frontbenchers. Esterson, however, has stayed firmly put. Even so, he pulls no punches when asked whether the party’s summer-long row over anti-Semitism has overshadowed the kind of issues he’s keen to talk about. “It’s entirely self-inflicted by the Labour party,” he says of the split with Jewish groups.

Esterson speaks to The House in the week Labour’s ruling body finally agrees to fully incorporate an internationally-recognised definition of anti-Jewish abuse in the party’s code of conduct. “We could have dealt with the concerns the Jewish community had about our approach to anti-Semitism months ago, and we should have done,” he says. “I’m glad that we have now, and we’ve got to move on from it. But yeah, it’s been frustrating.” He agrees that the party’s “excellent” ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign – aiming to flaunt its support for domestic manufacturing – was a “missed opportunity” that become overshadowed by the row. But he vows that Labour will return to the theme in the coming months and says the party is offering “a fresh start, hope and optimism at a highly uncertain, and potentially very dangerous, time”.

“It’s really important people hear that message of hope,” he says. “I want them to be optimistic about the future, and I’m hoping we can get back on with delivering that message.”

MICHAEL WHITE: Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are the twin embarrassments of the week

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA / Simon Dawson
Boris Johnson. Photo: PA / Simon Dawson’s try to maintain this column’s dignity by keeping its trousers on and seeing how far we can get with the serious stuff this week before having to mention the tawdry B-Word. No, on this occasion I do not mean Brexit.

The serious stuff starts with that flurry of ‘Brexit deal possible in two months, says Barnier’ headlines which have been building since the weekend. Is it just another clumsy briefing of correspondents in Brussels and Berlin, eagerly amplified in beleaguered Whitehall, but soon to be squashed by the Élysée spokesman or from the glossy modernist, German chancellery?

Or has the political breakout from Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiating brief, a tightly-drawn trench rigidly defended, finally begun – like the Battle of Amiens whose 100th anniversary we recently celebrated? No, let’s not do battle analogy, they are the curse of the Brexit mindset. Or rather, battles won are the curse. Corporal Mogg is not so keen on those we lost, except (of course) Dunkirk.

But if there really is a general realisation among the EU27 that a no-deal Brexit on March 29 is possible – 50/50 or even 60/40 – and that this would be very bad for everyone, then the suddenly-important Salzburg summit next Thursday might yield hope for Theresa May.

No wonder she has been offering self-deprecating dancing tips on Twitter! The embarrassing collapse of grandiose plans by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Not-Much-Research Group (ERG) to publish an alternative Brexit blueprint – this amid comic policy disputes and ego-driven clashes of personal ambition – must also have put a spring in May’s kitten heels.

Emails show that the European Research Group, led by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured) and ex-Brexit Minister Steve Baker, has a ‘second’ bank account to pay for wining and dining supporters
Emails show that the European Research Group, led by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured) and ex-Brexit Minister Steve Baker, has a ‘second’ bank account to pay for wining and dining supporters

There again, the softer mood music for the coming season of Strictly Come Negotiating might be a tactical feint, another tease by the judging panel. Mogg and Steve Baker will also bounce back, unabashed by their failure or by Liam (no “irrational positivity” please) Fox’s defection to Planet Reality. Fox may re-defect when he reads his own interview with a previously obscure magazine called The Truth Trade.

Similar uncertainty hangs over Sweden’s weekend election result. Has the challenge from the far-right Sweden Democrats been stemmed by the centre left alliance (144 seats) and its centre right (142) equivalent? Or does the rebranded neo-Nazis’ 63-seat bloc – despite being below polling predictions – change consensual Swedish politics for ever, as the populist surge has done elsewhere in the prosperous Nordic social democracies?

A little of both, I suspect, as the poison is doing everywhere, most conspicuously in the Trumpified US, but even in pious, Protestant Germany. Good governance can hold the line, but it is having to raise its game. It must respond effectively to voter dismay, much of it legitimate, about economic stagnation and the impact of large-scale immigration, creative but often disorderly, on their most vulnerable communities.

The tone of public discourse will remain harsher until these concerns have been addressed. And in such fluidity the daily rush of events point both ways. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s de facto prime minister, this week backed off his election pledge to expel 500,000 illegal immigrants after colliding with reality in office. There will be no wall across the Mediterranean.

But Salvini’s new EU ally on the populist right, Viktor Orban, has been ramping up his confrontational rhetoric at the European parliament in Strasbourg where MEPs had finally been screwing up their courage to sanction the Hungarian prime minister – or not, if the Merkel bloc (helped by departing UK Tories) can head them off.

At stake is the familiar litany of populist abuses, Orban’s calculated assaults on the press and judges, his nepotism and fraud. With minor modifications – delete university freedom, insert Syrian instead of Mexicans – and it could be Warsaw, Washington, Rome or Vienna. Bunga Bunga London even, where tax cheats (so HMRC now admits) avoid a trial if they’re rich enough. A bit like the thriving market for Russian plutocrats to buy Maltese passports now that post-Skripal London is tightening up.

Let’s be positive where we can, so that means ignoring renewed migrant clashes in Germany this week. In cautiously upbeat mood the former Swedish prime and foreign minister, veteran Carl Bildt (69), admitted on BBC Radio 4 the other day that the optimistic and hopeful Europe in which he worked for so long – in the boom years – has since given way to the politics of identity and fear.

The Europe of Dreams may have faded, but it is being replaced by the “Europe of Necessity”, he insists. Unlike so many, Bildt did not blame the EU for current upheavals, but the member states whose leaders had too often failed to explain EU policies and ambitions to their voters. Does he mean you, Tony Blair? By default this omission has allowed Brussels to be scapegoated by insurgent nationalistic populists, he explains.

The ‘Europe of Necessity’ is a good phrase, it’s been knocking around among EU elites for some time. For Emmanuel Macron and the likes of that dogged Belgian federalist, Guy Verhofstadt, the answer is always ‘more Europe’. The Belgian said this week that Brexit will prove such a cautionary tale that it will cure euroscepticism across the remaining 27.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Belgium has always been one of the most vulnerable and fragile states in Europe, as viewers of ITV’s Vanity Fair will be reminded again in an episode or two. But Bildt’s self-righteous allocation of blame is generous to Brussels, in my opinion. The Commission has tried to do too much too badly and the Council of Ministers has kicked too many core problems down the road. The Martin Selmayr affair, sharp practice to propel the German insider into the Commission’s top job, confirmed last week by the Irish ombudsman, will end up in the long grass too. Who cares about British protests now?

All the same, we’ll miss lots about ‘Brussels’ when it’s gone, especially if the Moggster’s ERG blueprint – slashed taxes and regulations – ever comes to pass, not to mention the draft’s fantasy ‘Star Wars’ anti-missile defence shield. That’s is why, warts and all, such an unheroic phrase as ‘Europe of Necessity’ may be one whose hour has come in Brexit-torn Britain.

The latest polling data confirm growing fears about the economic consequences of a bad Brexit are finally breaking through. Was that a 59% to 41% finding in favour of Remain, I saw somewhere? Meeting in Manchester, this week’s TUC has backed a second referendum – a People’s Vote – if May brings back a deal that doesn’t protect its members’ rights and interests.

These are starting to look like substantial bales of straw in the wind. The Unite union chief Len McCluskey, Jeremy Corbyn’s banker, wriggled in Manchester because neither he nor the Labour leadership, whose inner core his own team dominates, want to be pinned down by the People’s Vote option.

Instead they want a general election. Of course, they do. Unveiling his own plans for greater economic fairness and workers’ rights in Manchester – echoes of what left-wing activists rejected in the 1970s – the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, explained that “we are going to keep all the options on the table”. He prefers May’s government to collapse and let Corbyn win the ensuing election.

Wishful thinking on both counts.

We are edging closer here to the B-word. No, not B for Blair either. The former PM came as near as he wisely could at this stage to saying last week that Labour moderates have lost the intra-party battle with the left and that he will not vote for a Corbyn premiership in 2022. That is another significant brick pulled out of the tottering wall.

The Momentum left responded by stepping up its deselection campaign – in ultra-marginal Canterbury, which Labour took by a fluke in 2017, for heaven’s sake – while ‘leader’ Corbyn averted his gaze in the name of “party democracy”, as usual. He really doesn’t get it, does he?

So the Labour leadership will try to vote down any half-credible deal May may bring home from the EU’s pre-Christmas summit or post-Christmas cliff-hanger and put party before country in doing so.

That will put mainstream Labour MPs on the spot. But chief whip Nick Brown, loyal instrument of Gordon Brown’s endless manoeuvres against Blair, is not best-placed to demand loyalty from MPs, especially on behalf of serial rebel, Corbyn.

The parliamentary numbers are impossible accurately to predict when so many tectonic plates (copyright John Prescott) are moving. A politician more experienced that Steve ‘Resigner’ Baker – who claims an 80-vote Tory veto on the Chequers model – would know that. Has he never heard of dangled knighthoods? What else are they for?

The crucial votes this autumn will be Tory votes of MPs faced with a menu of lesser evils. Compromise on Chequers or dying in the no-deal ditch? A Mogg-backed Boris in Number 10? Or Jeremy Corbyn?

A messy ‘Half-Blind Brexit’ deal may include only vague outlines of a future trade deal, to be finalised during the two-year transition.

It would enrage the purists but may satisfy weary voters, especially if it stabilises a shaky economy or the kind of problem which Philip Hammond warned against on Tuesday – for which he has persuaded Mark Carney to stay on at the Bank of England.

And this decision would be taken against austerity-driven crises in the police (“civil disorder” anyone?) and the NHS, about whose stresses we hear every day.

It would take courage and conviction, reckless or romantic, to vote to pile on further disorder if May, Merkel and Macron – the Three M’s – compromise and kick the can forward. The dangled K may be a better course for a wavering MP.

Tuesday’s Economists for Free Trade session (actually it was only Patrick Minford) further highlighted the content-lite Moggsters’ divisions: A public shambles. Over-excited BBC bulletins next morning on a “secret” meeing of 50 Brexit MPs, amateur plotters to unseat May (but not yet, of course), served the same purpose – wake us up when you’ve got a candidate, boys!

With a heavy heart this brings us unavoidably to the B-word. Who is that all-too-familiar figure writing demented columns about Chequers “suicide vests” for the Mail on Sunday, the paper which has just sacked his sister as a columnist? Who is that mooning the prime minister from the safety of a bush in St James’s Park? It is, it’s him, the self-styled World King.

Who then writes another incontinent, tax-slashing column for the Telegraph against the advice of wiser supporters who want their embarrassing hero to shut up for a bit? Yes, it’s Bonking Boris, the married father of four (and counting), who is reported to be wooing yet another young woman barely half his age.

Was he, as reported, encouraging his protégée to abuse her position as head of the party’s press operation for partisan advantage (his)? Was Johnson really thinking about putting Carrie Symonds on the FCO payroll as an adviser? Did Michael ‘Trust Me’ Gove also support her activist campaign to force a government U-turn on the proposed release/parole for the black cab rapist? The unravelling story rolls on, fed by a crop of photos from Facebook and elsewhere.

As for the uproar triggered by the Sun’s exclusive about the break-up of the 25-year Johnson marriage, the widely-touted suggestion that it was orchestrated either by Boris himself (“clearing the decks for a leadership contest”) or by Number 10 strikes me as far-fetched too.

Symonds was flashing indiscreet texts from her Sir Galahad at a wedding three months ago. The then-foreign secretary was hardly discreet himself, no wonder he made such a poor fist of the day job. Half the Westminster press corps seems to have known what was going on, even some clued-up MPs did. In the post-Leveson era all they needed was an excuse.

So Boris-gate was an accident waiting to happen and happen it did. With customary tabloid clarity the Mirror front page duly asked its readers to consider what the egotist champion had just done (again) to his own family, then ask what they thought Johnson might do to their own, if given half a chance?

Fair question, but the brutal truth is personal morality is not always an effective guide to an effective political leader.

David Lloyd George provides the prime text in modern British politics. Saved from ruin by the loyalty of his wife in the pre-war Mirror libel suit and saved again by a partisan select committee verdict on the Marconi insider-trading scandal, it meant he was still available to re-energise a flagging war effort in 1916.

Throughout the inter-war years many of the clever politicians – Oswald Mosley, Churchill, Nye Bevan, LG too – were (rightly) deemed mad, bad or dangerous to know by what Stanley Baldwin called his “cabinet of faithful husbands”. In 1940 it was a different story. It always is when the chips are down.

Lloyd George’s wartime partner, Georges Clemenceau, the ‘Tiger of France’, was no domestic angel either. Lord Palmerston, the mid-Victorian Whig, was a popular populist PM, a notorious ladies’ man of whose paternity suit Disraeli said the Tories should keep it a secret – “or he will sweep the country”. Pam was nearly 80.

Despite his own Churchillian daydreams, reinforced by an autobiographical account of the great man’s life, Boris Johnson fails the ‘Flawed Great Man’ test.

In his ‘wilderness’ decade, Churchill the journalist and backbench rebel, often used inflammatory language and showed poor judgement. He had views on everything: often wrong.

But he was on the green leather benches, week in week out, challenging the Chamberlain government with evidence of inadequate defence preparation, often provided by the kind of government officials now doing the same to Donald Trump.

A cabinet minister at 33, a progressive home secretary at 35, by 54 – Johnson’s age – Churchill was in his ninth cabinet office and his fourth (flawed) year as chancellor of the exchequer.

At every level the comparison is absurd, worth making only because the portly plotter makes it, if only by implication.

Neither as a journalist and author, let alone as a politician, has he achieved one tenth.

Mayor of London? Oh please. It is not quite being first lord of the Admiralty in 1914, or even environment and defence secretary as Michael Heseltine had been when he challenged Margaret Thatcher. Boris presided over some costly vanity projects, some very tall buildings and (‘where was he?’) the London riots, but not much else.

Yet here he is being talked up yet again as the man to challenge (the necessary votes for a trigger ballot are always not quite enough) and replace Theresa May, but not quite yet.

As he demonstrated on live television, Johnson wasn’t ready in 2016 why should we think better of him two failed years later?

Here is a man, solitary by temperament, much in need of attention, preferably distant but adoring, highly educated, in the Classics too (they understood populism), yet strangely empty. What makes Boris tick, people ask? Vanity and fear of what Churchill called his “black dog” of depression, perhaps. Boris the sad clown?

Might that explain the compulsive risk-taking? What’s Lloyd George like on his own, someone wondered. “When he’s on his own, he doesn’t exist,” came the reply.

It was someone else who remarked that LG didn’t care where the train was going as long as he was the engine driver. Like Gordon Brown, Johnson is a man with an ambition for power, but not a coherent vision of what to do with it, far less so even than his partner-in-vanity-and-misrule Donald Trump. How Boris must hate the obvious comparison! But Trump and Brown are both much more substantial figures.

Have we misjudged Boris? Among friends and foes some think so, that it is all calculation with a purpose, not a lackadaisical stumble. What if his tasteless Mail on Sunday distraction was not simply a ‘dead cat’ gambit from Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby’s grubby bag of tricks to deflect the headlines from his dalliance with Symonds and divorce from Marina Wheeler QC?

What if the dead cat served a second diversionary purpose, to distract attention from the ERG’s strategic failure to produce a coherent Brexit plan after all this time? It certainly should have been a greater priority.

The ERG will huff and puff, saying it is not their job, but their divisions over policy and personnel have been exposed, leaving May more scope for manoeuvre.

So the collapse of Plan B is another milestone moment on the road to reality and compromises with the Europe of Necessity. Truth Talks, as Dr Fox might put it – and certainly did in that interview. “We have got to be rational and say that everything will not be wonderful just because we are leaving the EU… there are some great opportunities that come from Brexit… but that is not a guarantee that everything is going to be rosy on the other side. That will be dependent on our own actions and the actions of others.”

It’s tempting to say ‘now he tells us’, but more constructive to say ‘Welcome back to the Europe of Necessity’.

‘Labour is back as the political voice of the working class’

Jeremy Corbyn tells Unite conference class politics is essential for ‘transformational change’

LABOUR is back as the “political voice of the working class,” party leader Jeremy Corbyn told trade unionists today.

Jeremy Corbyn tells Unite conference class politics is essential for ‘transformational change’

Speaking at Unite’s biannual policy conference in Brighton, Mr Corbyn committed Labour to “doing far more” to “give a real voice” to working people.

Mr Corbyn said three decades of media and Establishment insistence that “class doesn’t matter” had allowed a “tiny minority at the top of society” to become “ever more wealthy.”

He told delegates that “transformative change” will come from a united labour movement.

“The greatest changes in history have never been handed down from above, they have always been fought for by people campaigning and demanding that change is made,” he said.

“Labour will work with you every step of the way to deliver the best possible outcome for working people.

“When we go into government, we will not be able to achieve the far-reaching reforms we desire without the help of our whole labour movement.”

The Labour leader pointed to TUC research showing that the last decade had been the worst for wage decline since the early 19thcentury.

Mr Corbyn turned on the Tories’ “determination” to weaken unions and reduce trade union rights.

“When you attack trade unions, you attack working people’s incomes and the share of the national income that is going to wages.

“You can’t pontificate on the steps of Downing Street about ‘tackling burning injustices’ when you deliberately undermine the organisations who lead the fight against burning injustices in the workplace.”

In response, Mr Corbyn pledged that the next Labour government will end the race to the bottom.

He said: “In government, we will put the interests of working-class people centre-stage to give the majority a decent chance, real control of their lives and a larger share of the wealth created.”

Mr Corbyn also passed on the best wishes of incoming left-wing Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the union