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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory