Andrew Grice: Balls has to address the past before he can shape the future

Inside Westminster

Share
Related Topics

The second sudden resignation at Westminster within 19 hours, when Andy Coulson quit as Downing Street's director of communications, was greeted with jubilation by Labour.

It ensured that the media spotlight panned quickly away from the resignation of Alan Johnson as shadow Chancellor.

Labour shouldn't celebrate too much. Mr Coulson was an important aide to David Cameron and his departure is a blow to the Prime Minister. But he will be long forgotten by the next general election, due in 2015. In contrast, Ed Balls, who replaced Mr Johnson, will be a major player on the political stage.

His appointment to the job Ed Miliband denied him three months ago transforms the terms of political trade. The battle between Mr Balls and George Osborne, the Chancellor, will be almost as important as the contest between Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron.

More important still will be the relationship between the Labour leader and his new shadow Chancellor. They worked alongside each other as aides to Gordon Brown but relations have been frosty for years. Now they will sink or swim together, and Labour will drown if they don't make their partnership work. There are spooky echoes of Blair-Brown. The junior partner overtakes the senior one to grab the Labour leadership. The relationship goes from bad to worse and destabilises the party.

The key test for Miliband-Balls is whether they can learn the lessons from the war of attrition of the Blair-Brown era. It is one thing to say you will "move on" but quite another to achieve it.

Mr Balls was understandably miffed not to land the Treasury brief after Mr Miliband bagged the top prize. He and his wife Yvette Cooper, also a candidate for shadow Chancellor but exiled to foreign affairs, were semi-detached members of the Shadow Cabinet. They became three-quarters detached when, by accident rather than design, Mr Miliband failed to include them in his inclusive approach to those who had not backed him for the leadership.

But he tried to put that right before Christmas, inviting Mr Balls and Ms Cooper into his "inner circle" of shadow ministers, which also included Mr Johnson, Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander, John Denham and Liam Byrne. So the Miliband-Balls relationship was already on the mend when Mr Johnson told the Labour leader nine days ago he wanted to quit frontline politics.

Mr Miliband still needed to talk through his economic policy differences with Mr Balls who, during the leadership election, argued forcefully that the former chancellor Alistair Darling's plan to halve the deficit over four years was too severe, while Mr Miliband backed it as his starting point. They can probably square the circle on this, but other questions remain.

Why is Mr Balls fit for the Treasury brief now when he was not three months ago? According to Team Miliband, Labour didn't have an economic policy then but does now, the bones of one, at least. In other words, Ed M wanted to sketch it out himself, and not let Ed B do it.

More problematic is the other reason Mr Balls did not get the job last autumn: his close association with Mr Brown as the architect of his economic policies. Miliband aides argue that the Balls appointment is a sign of his strength, not weakness. It may be counter-intuitive but they have a point: if Mr Balls is the co-architect with Mr Miliband of Labour's economic strategy, it might carry more conviction with the voters than if he were skulking on the sidelines. Far better for Ed B to be a driver than a brake on what Ed M wants to do, which includes admitting Labour's mistakes on the economy in its 13 years in power.

Mr Miliband, tentatively and belatedly, has begun to acknowledge that Labour under Mr Brown was too slow to admit the need for deep spending cuts. Mr Miliband rightly judges that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will succeed in pinning the blame for the deficit on Labour overspending unless Labour admits the error of its ways. Blaming the global crisis alone won't wash with voters unless Labour accepts some culpability.

Mr Miliband has been cautious enough and will need to say it a thousand times before people notice. In interviews yesterday, Mr Balls seemed even more reluctant to do this necessary "mea culpa". He grudgingly admitted Labour did not get everything right but then rattled off a list of things he said they did. "The reason why a year ago unemployment was coming down was because Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, in the face of a global financial recession, made the right calls," he insisted. Memo to Ed B: more contrition needed to throw off your "deficit denier" tag.

To be fair, Mr Balls did get a lot right; Bank of England independence and stopping Mr Blair taking Britain into the euro. He was also right to press Labour to pledge not to raise VAT at last year's election. Mr Darling refused, neutering Labour's attacks on the Tories.

Unless Labour concedes the Brown government was partly to blame for a deficit caused largely by global events, it will not regain people's trust on the economy. And that means it will not regain power.

Mr Balls would much rather talk about the present (the Coalition's "reckless" cuts) and the future (the need for a jobs and growth strategy). But until he says more about the past, Labour will not have much of a future.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Designer

£32969 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Engineer

£35000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Data Engineer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence