Geoffrey Robinson: I feel he has the strength of character for the job

The five tests devised by Ed Balls steered Brown to victory on the decision of whether to join the euro
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The Independent Online

Despite standing up for sterling to placate Rupert Murdoch, when he came to power in 1997 Tony Blair was already pushing hard to persuade his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the Treasury to support joining the euro.

After 18 years in opposition, we had to make a decision just six months after taking office. Ranged behind the PM and pushing with unyielding intent for entry were Peter Mandelson, his euro-enthusiastic colleagues and two Cabinet ministers, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers.

On the other side of the argument, we were fortunate that the Treasury, after the ERM débâcle in 1992, was deeply averse to entry. In domestic politics the root of the opposition was Ed Balls. The impregnable formation of the "five tests" had, like so much other important Treasury work, been formulated by Ed while we were in opposition.

The tests were written by Ed personally during a visit to Washington by the Chancellor, Ed and myself in late 1996. In effect, they were more than just economic tests. In reality, what Balls achieved was to place ultimate responsibility for the decision in the hands of the Treasury. From 1997, it was begrudgingly accepted that the euro decision was to be taken on economic grounds – not driven by the politics.

The decision demonstrates to good effect a remarkable combination of balanced economic judgment, good grasp of political strategy and a capability of being able to think a policy through. In 2001, Balls needed these qualities and more to see off the next attempt to get Britain into the euro by No 10 and its allies.

The decision was of historic significance for this country. Blair was right about its importance, but was wrong about the judgment he made. In 2002, a vast armada was assembled for No 10's assault on the Treasury. Balls was not overawed. His vastly-outnumbered but nimble team of just two officials marshalled new arguments. It is no disrespect to the then-Chancellor to say that, without Balls, the outcome of the second battle might have been different. Balls steered Brown to an outright intellectual and political victory.

That is the great debt we owe to the brilliant young man who now trails his rivals in the race for Labour leadership, a post he could discharge with great effectiveness at this critical moment for the country's economic future.

I am conscious that Ed's manner is not always ingratiating. He is no respecter of rank. But his faults are slight compared to his gifts.

It will come as no surprise to colleagues that I have nominated Ed Balls and will vote for him as my first preference. Although a single vote has not yet been cast, it may turn out that my second preference vote could count for more. That will be cast for David Miliband. Principally because I feel he has the strength of character for the job. There are plenty of people around with first-class brains, but you also need clarity of purpose and good judgment.

I believe that David Miliband's mind will become more open to wider historical influences and that his judgements will become more mature. He must resist pressure from Mandelson to define himself as against his own party to show he is "tough".

I hope very strongly that he will appoint Ed Balls as his shadow Chancellor. This pairing will leave space for Ed Miliband's supple intelligence and people skills to be fully utilised, so he can gain experience in more testing portfolios than he has so far been exposed to.

Such a team could lead us to victory at the next general election, when the economy is set to be the predominant issue. To be a really effective Opposition, Labour needs all three of them. The above combination seems the best way forward to keep them in harness, working as a team, giving hope and leadership to the British people as we enter the dark period of unnecessarily savage and I fear prolonged deflation.

Geoffrey Robinson is the Labour MP for Coventry North West and was a Treasury minister 1997-1998