John Rentoul: Ed Miliband needs a plan, and soon

Labour politicians' answer to the question, 'What would you do?' invariably starts with, 'Not this'

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British politics has come full circle. In the the Sixties, it was a toff who was mocked for his self-deprecation. Sir Alec Douglas-Home had said, in an interview in The Observer in 1962, when asked if he might become prime minister, "No, because I do my sums with match sticks." A year later, Harold Wilson, the dynamic young Leader of the Opposition, would not let him forget it, and it helped to paint him as a genial old buffer who was out of touch.

Today, it is a working-class Shadow Chancellor who takes modesty too far. Asked when he was appointed what he would do first, Alan Johnson said: "Pick up a primer, Economics for Beginners, and read it over the weekend." Thus did he disable himself in responding to the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Last week's clash in the Commons between George Osborne and Johnson was Competence vs Character. The Chancellor came across as a bit squeaky, partisan and too clever by half. He must learn to pause, or the entire Chamber will be gasping for air waiting for him to breathe. (As it was, we survived only because he had to stop frequently to drink from his glass of water.) But we had no doubt that he knew what he was talking about. His shadow came across as relaxed, witty and making it up as he went along.

We have been here before. For all of the 1980s, in fact, when Labour MPs were regarded as nicer people but clueless, while the Conservatives were hard-hearted but doing what had to be done. That would be a prism through which David Cameron and his Chancellor would be happy to have us see the next five years.

It could work better for them this time, though, because they have the Liberal Democrats on board, which means that they have some nice people co-opted to front up some of the harder decisions that they feel bound to take. Never mind that the layer of niceness has already been ground down to 10 per cent in the opinion polls, a thickness not seen since that Dianified moment in late 1997 when Tony Blair had an approval rating of 93 per cent. The point is that, as well as winning on Competence vs Character, they are on the right side of the Strategy vs Tactics divide.

Osborne may keep resorting to the disreputable tricks of the old enemy (there were moments when his delivery resembled Gordon Brown's transposed half an octave higher), but it cannot be doubted that he has a strategy. He tried to catch Labour out by pretending that his cuts were not as deep as those proposed by Alistair Darling, of which Chris Giles at the Financial Times said: "This sort of deception really should be beneath a Chancellor of the Exchequer." But the big picture is that he is taking tough decisions to balance the books, and the instant opinion polls suggest that the voters agree that this is necessary and right.

Against that, Labour sounds as if it is not sure that the books need to be balanced. Which they don't, of course. There have been precious few fiscal years since the Second World War when the public finances have been in surplus. Once or twice, such as in 1976 and now, what Sky News last week called the "ballooning shortfall" threatened either to escape into the upper atmosphere or to fall short, and emergency action had to be taken.

But to eliminate the structural deficit altogether in four years? That is neither desirable nor likely to be achieved. The trouble is that you need to sound like an economist to argue that case. Gavyn Davies, who used to be Labour's economics guru, wrote knowledgeably last week about why the public spending cuts as announced were unlikely to be achieved. Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist who praised Gordon Brown for saving the world, wrote in The New York Times about why it would be a disaster taking us back to the 1930s if they were achieved.

That is not the kind of stuff that Alan Johnson can do. Ed Balls, whose face failed to conceal his opinion that he should have been delivering the response to the spending review on Wednesday, could do it, but that would not work either, because he has been infected with a Brownite selectivity in arguing a case that makes him sound as if he is in denial even when he is right.

In his The New Machiavelli published this month, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, says: "Ed Balls, who had been a pleasant young man as a Financial Times leader-writer, was transformed by his connection with Gordon." And Balls is the member of Brown's entourage about whom Powell is relatively complimentary. "Ed's judgement may have been flawed, but at least he could reach a decision rather than putting it off indefinitely." Brown's inability to take a decision, he says, seemed to "infect" the rest of his "immediate circle". One of that circle, of course, was Ed Miliband.

Edward Miliband, as Hansard styles him, has made a start in trying to prove Powell wrong about that, but so far he is all tactics and no strategy. As Cameron patronisingly told him in the warm-up for the spending review: "If you have not got a plan, you cannot attack a plan." Labour politicians are being knocked about in the Commons, and in every broadcast studio into which they go, because their answer to the obvious question, "What would you do?", starts off with "Not this", before moving quickly on to: "We are in opposition."

There ought to be obvious dangers in responding to the cuts by saying that they will hurt the poor, as this looks as if the party is simply defending welfare spending. But there are obvious opportunities that are not being taken in opposing cuts to police and courts budgets. This isn't about economics – as ever, that can be argued either way – it is about a strategy for the country.

Miliband does not have long to settle the doubts. Is he indecisive? Does he have a plan?

Follow John Rentoul on Twitter at: twitter.com/JohnRentoul

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