Let’s face it: Ed Balls was to Gordon Brown as Laurel was to Hardy. His return will no doubt lead to ‘another fine mess’. This surprise reshuffle does change the calculus of Labour’s electability. When Ed Milliband decided not to appoint Balls to the role in October it was a deliberate and calculated move. It was possibly the only truly leader-like think young Ed has done since he got the gig. The reasoning at the time was surely:
- You would not want someone so intimately connected with the entire economic calamity facing this country back on point for economic policy
- You could not want someone who has had an insider view (and leading role) in using the office of Chancellor to undermine and oust a previous leader, sitting there ready for another metaphoric stab.
Well, nothings changed. Those reasons still stand. Yet here Balls is. He’s got the job he craved from the moment he realised he was out-of-the game for the last leadership shot, and young Ed will be feeling his breath on his neck from here-on-in.
To give him his due Balls is a bruiser. A political big-beast. From today George Osborne will be looking forward to his turns in Parliament with a tummy rumble. Balls knows his stats and figures and will not be easy to trip up. Worse, he’s more than capable of scoring some points through sheer statistical battery. But that’s all just fluff in the Westminster village. Balls fundamentally is the living, breathing embodiment of the leftish or centre-leftish vision of Big Government/Big State/Spend and Tax Labour. As Shadow Chancellor he will push them more so. Even with all the current national woes, when push comes to shove that positioning is simply electoral poison. The ‘squeezed middle’ – the people who count – the very people who switched to Labour in 97 and switched away from them in 2010 – those floating voters just don’t drift in that direction.
And that is the reel rub for Labour. The one man on the Labour front bench who could appeal to that ‘thinking middle’ was Alan Johnson. He was simply impossible to dislike. Even though he was struggling to catch-up with his brief, even though he talked rot – people, even me, warmed to him. For a politician that curious ‘nice bloke’ charisma is the X-factor stuff. It is priceless political alchemy. Blair had it. Johnson had it. Brown didn’t. Balls doesn’t. And so the Labour party is a weaker party this evening.
As I say, for reasons I cannot put my finger on I like Alan Johnson despite his politics. I have no idea why he has stepped down. I wish him well and sincerely hope that whatever the personal issues are they are the kind that can be put right and have a happy ending by making this move.