Margareta Pagano: Balls will scare Miliband more than the Tories
The 'light touch' adviser now poses a heavy threat
Sunday 23 January 2011
The conventional wisdom is that the one person whom the Chancellor, George Osborne, didn't want as his opposite number across the Dispatch Box was Ed Balls because he's both a street-fighter and one of Labour's few economically literate figures.
Osborne knows that Balls will fight dirty – in all ways – and has warned colleagues that he "will be down my throat 24 hours a day".
So it's no surprise to be told by Treasury insiders that they're already stocking up on thermos flasks and candles as they prepare for long nights and weekends at their desks as Balls goes on the attack.
There's no doubt that Balls has the economic pedigree to put up a fight; he has degrees from Oxford and Harvard and is still rated by many on the Labour left to be a brilliant, if not slavish, Keynesian thinker. He's the economic adviser who helped his former paymaster, Chancellor Gordon Brown, come up with the so-called "five economic tests for convergence" which meant that Britain could easily justify keeping sterling out of the euro, even though Tony Blair wanted in.
Supposedly, he was also behind Brown's decision to give the Bank of England greater independence, a decision which most would agree was sensible.
But Balls is also associated with the very worst of Brownomics. He was Brown's adviser when, as Chancellor, he decided to remove the dividend tax credit from pensions funds, which is generally blamed for the end of the UK's final salary scheme.
He was also beside Brown when he made perhaps one of his more absurd decisions, selling Britain's gold reserves at $250 an ounce – today gold is over $1,000 – so the Treasury lost billions for the taxpayer.
Balls was also party to Brown's decision to create the tripartite City regulation, taking banking supervision away from the Bank of England to the Financial Services Authority, a move which was partly to blame for the lack of monitoring over the banks.
Then, as City minister, Balls was one of the most vigorous advocates of "light touch" regulation, making speeches to the American banks about how welcome they were, how much we liked their business, and, of course, the fat taxes which their bonuses brought into the Exchequer. How times have changed.
He was also behind Brown's original policy of prudence and the "fiscal rules" which were to ensure no more boom and bust, a policy which was followed until the early 2000s.
But the interesting question is whether he backed Brown's decision to move away from that early caution, allowing the previous Labour government to build the biggest budget deficit in history? Or did he pretend to go along with the decision, putting personal ambition – his tribal loyalty to Brown – over and above his own intellect?
Whichever it was, Balls clearly sees the Labour leadership as the ultimate prize. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the coalition's public spending cuts, setting out the alternative view in his Bloomberg speech last year, when he warned that such deep public spending cuts could undermine the fragile economic growth now taking place. At least he is consistent: he was equally critical of the plans of the previous Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to cut the deficit in four years although now he is saying that he does accept those plans. Which is it to be?
It's going to be fascinating to watch Balls now that he has got his second-choice job. Ed Miliband didn't give him the shadow chancellorship, which he wanted, so badly first time round because he didn't trust him. It's unlikely that has changed his mind, but for now he has no option.
Balls remains a deficit-denier, he is unapologetic about Labour's spending bonanza and has no alternative plans to mend our finances other than higher taxes which certainly would cripple the economic recovery. That's why Osborne shouldn't fear Balls. It's the Bullingdon Boy who will relish this opportunity to throw punches at Balls rather than the other way around.
Whatever you think of Osborne, he's proved a wily political operator, holding down opponents in his own party who didn't think he was up to the role. No, it's Miliband who should fear Balls at the Dispatch Box.
The butcher's boy who grew up to be Britain's newest £2bn food mogul
So who is Ranjit Boparan? Until yesterday, this 44-year-old West Bromwich-based entrepreneur was unknown outside the food industry. But today the young second-generation British-Asian businessman has emerged as one of the country's biggest food producers with his £341m agreed bid for Northern Foods, one of the UK's oldest public companies, first listed in 1956 with roots going back to the milk-business in 1880.
Starting out as a butcher at the age of 17, Boparan made his first big play in his late 20s by buying Hillsdown's poultry business, going on to build it into one of the country's biggest chicken suppliers with plants in Britain, Holland and Poland. As well as providing chicken to KFC, his 2 Sisters Food Group is also one of biggest suppliers to supermarkets around the country, including Tesco. A year ago, he popped into the headlines for the first time after buying the Harry Ramsden fish and chip shops and then last April he paid £35m for the Five Star Fish business. At the last count, his business turned over £1bn.
With one swoop, Boparan has created a finger-licking business with combined sales of £2bn. There doesn't appear to be any overlap between the two businesses, which would be good news as the combined group is a big employer – Northern Foods has 9,000 people, 2 Sisters has 8,000.
You can see what Boparan is trying to do with this deal, and it's smart. The food business is ripe for consolidation and this way he has gained a foot-hold into the vertical market; he's got the raw products and Northern Foods – which provides Marks and Spencer and others with ready-made meals, Fox's biscuits and Goodfella pizzas – has the processing, marketing and distribution experience.
The one thing those who do know Boparan say about him is that he has good relations with his customers – unlike Northern Foods, which was always rowing with them. In many ways, this is a story for our times.
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