Ed Balls is still shouting. But who’s still listening?

You can’t win an election with a disregarded Cassandra for shadow Chancellor

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From New York the night before last came a handy tutorial about the perils of rushing to doomy judgement. In June, the priestly wiseacres of sporting punditry read the last rites over Rafael Nadal’s stellar career after his Wimbledon defeat to a man, Steve Darcis, certain never to bolster the sparse ranks of household-name Belgians. Nadal might win another French Open or two on the forgiving red clay, the received wisdom held, but his knees were so crocked that he would never be a contender on hard courts again.

On Monday, the resurgent Mallorcan bull gored Novak Djokovic to perdition over four scintillating sets to win his second US Open. With his 13th Grand Slam title trousered, the amended assumption is that he will surpass Roger Federer’s record of 17, and supplant the Fed as tennis’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Either he is the Lazarus of Flushing Meadows, or rumours of his demise were exaggerated.

You would not care to overdo the comparison, because the Spaniard (off court) is both a modest and endearing man and a champion for the ages, but this startling volte face in his fortunes slightly puts me in mind of George Osborne. His future was also agreed to be behind him as recently as June, and on Monday the Chancellor was more swaggery than ever (some achievement recalling those Regency fop-meets-Modern-Romantic Bullingdon snaps) as he talked up the unexpectedly quick and potent recovery of the British economy.

It is far too early, as a leader in this newspaper stated yesterday, to confuse his braggadocio with firm fact. He may believe that the alleged success of his austerity regime allows him to bestride the stage like a colossus, but the shadow Chancellor insists that he bestrides it like a colostomy bag. Mr Obsorne, posited Ed Balls in another newspaper yesterday, is full of crap.

I paraphrase him for succinctness. What he actually wrote is that the Chancellor’s economic plan has failed; that the rise in prices continues to outpace that in earnings; that had Mr Osborne adhered to his own more Keynsian strictures, the economy would have sustained the growth bequeathed to him by Alistair Darling (whom he absentmindedly forgot to mention by name), rather than stagnating for three years; and that it would be foolish to take for granted that this stronger than anticipated growth will continue.

Two observations spring to mind. One is that he may well be correct about the first three of those points. The other is that unless he is also right about the fourth – unless, in other words this seemingly verdant oasis of recovery proves to be a mirage – it could not matter less whether he is right about the other three. Only a swift reversal of the economic improvement can save him now. Without that, he is inescapably trapped in the hideous position of having to make the counterfactual argument that in the alternate time line in which his Keynsian path was followed, Britain has already entered the land of milk and honey, and you do not win general election majorities with one of those.

Mr Balls’s frustration that being right about everything brings him no credit is intolerable. He is also right in arguing that what ministers routinely describe as “Labour’s recession” was no such thing, and that the slump was a global calamity beyond the control of any government, but again all that counts is the perception. The public has concluded that Labour’s borrowing, comfortably sustainable though it was in the pre-Armageddon conditions, was the bad guy.

So it is that he finds himself cast, possibly against type, as the ranting madman on the top deck of the bus. As he assails the other passengers with increasingly shrill declarations of what he knows to be the truth, he becomes ever more desperate (the adjective he projected on to Mr Osborne’s performance of Monday) as they embarrassedly bury their heads in the crossword.

Even this writer has enough professional self-respect to blush crimson at trotting out the ancient and formulaic line that Ed Miliband simply must replace him with Mr Darling, but with every encouraging economic indicator this becomes a more urgent imperative. While the psephological implications of his battle with the unions are marginal, you can no more hope to win an election with a shadow Chancellor who is at best a disregarded Cassandra, and at worst a ghoulish horror praying for renewed economic failure to revive his prospects, than with a counterfactual argument.

Who knows, perhaps one day writing off the shadow Chancellor will be seen as no less rash than dismissing Mr Osborne after his omnishambolic Budget of 2012. Jumping the gun is a perpetual weakness in political analysis, and for Ed Miliband to surgically remove his Balls could be another instance of premature emasculation. If Mr Miliband believes so, he will be guided about the wisdom of that in May 2015.

Meanwhile, the Nadal of the Treasury moves with the freedom and joyous abandon of one who cannot believe his luck that he is still in the game at all, let alone back among the favourites to replace David Cameron at the top of the rankings. Where the analogy fails is that, while Rafa had to do it the hard way against the fearsome Djokovic, the Chancellor is richly blessed in his opposition.

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