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.
New Labour used to do this thing. If they wanted to do something they knew would be unpopular with the Unions they would ‘leak’ that something far worse was in the planning. Once it was time to officially announce the policy they would then ‘retreat’ from the position that had been leaked to what they always wanted to do in the first place. So if they wanted tuition fees of £3000 they would first leak that they would be £6000, let people rage about it for a couple of months, and then announce the £3000 figure. Folk would think that this didn’t sound so bad and it would feel like a compromise. The passion would then be taken out of any opposition. They could then implement exactly what they had always planned. They did it again and again throughout their reign. It was quite a trick.
I can’t help but wonder if the Coalition has learned well from this technique. For months we’ve had this 40% figure of expected cuts out in the wild. Today we learned the figure is actually 19%. It really doesn’t sound that bad now does it?
The more tribal Labour supporters have had 20th October circled on their calendars for months. It was supposed to be the day that the ‘True face of the evil Tories’ would be demonstrated by these ‘savage 40% cuts’. Winter fuel for pensioners would go. Schools and the NHS would be slashed. October 20th was going to be Armageddon. If you believed the hype they have been spouting then today was supposed to be about the Tories rolling back the state all the way to Feudal times. Instead, we find out that the intent is merely to roll back the state all the way to the public spending we last saw way back in……………. 2008. Yes, for all the bluff and fluster public spending is going back to the same level it was at after 11 years of Labour rule. School spend is protected. NHS spending will increase.
The appropriate response today from all the doom-mongers should be relief and a slight feeling of churlishness. Not a bit of it. Instead a quick search of the blogosphere shows they are wallowing in a curious mix of disappointment and denial. My personal hopes that a spell of Coalition government would edge us away from our tradition of tribal politics sadly seem as unlikely now as at any point since May.
Our failure to pull everyone into a new ‘grown-up politics’ means that for our politicians the ‘X-Factor’ still matters. This is a problem for Osborne. He has little love from the press or public and his delivery today was cursed by a frog–in-the-throat that we haven’t seen since IDS was in his pomp. In comparison Alan Johnson stood up and was a Mr Charisma Snake-Oil salesman. If you were to score Osborne and Johnson you would give a 10-nil win to Osborne on substance, but you would have to give Johnson a 10-nil win on style. In 2010, for right or wrong, style impacts the voters more. We should be pleased that AJ did not stand for the Labour leadership as he has an almost Blair like capacity to get the public to trust and like him. I even, strangely, like him myself – I couldn’t help but chuckle at his shot at Clegg about his change of mind ‘between the close of polls and opening of ministerial car doors’. And on a chuckling note, I also laughed out loud at some random lefty’s ironic twitter shout that “We need these cuts so that people like the contestants in the Apprentice don’t leave the country”.
All said, the medicine has been dished and it doesn’t seem as bitter as we have been steeling ourselves for. Time will tell if we have held back too much and perhaps should have cut deeper. The challenge now having announced the cuts is to get out there and deliver them and get this country back on its feet quickly.