Matthew Norman: Labour's tragedy is not its leader – it's the shadow Chancellor

Were Yvette Cooper the opponent, I can't believe Osborne would risk this tax cut braggadocio

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The two most irrelevant things in the world, a Northern stand-up used to say, are the Pope's testes and a good write up in the Express. If Bernard Manning were still with us, he could boost the duo to a trio today simply by adding: "And whatever Ed Balls has to say about the Budget."

Assuming that the leaking (or rather, torrential flooding) from the little red box is accurate, George Osborne is about to offer as lavish a gift as an opposition has received in memory. In other circumstances – circs, for instance, in which the shadow Chancellor had the fiscal credibility of the late Viv Nicholson – cutting the income tax top rate to 45 per cent might seem the shortest suicide note in history.

The Chancellor will mitigate his largesse by compelling the wealthy to contribute more elsewhere, apparently, but you need not be a brilliant soothsayer to say this sooth with confidence: everyone will fixate on the lowering of the top rate by a shilling in the pound, and all else will be subtext. With about two-thirds of those polled, including a majority of Tories, opposed to the cut, this is quite a head-scratcher in both economic and political terms. One compelling reason, we're told, is the higher rate brings in only £750m per annum, an amount almost too trifling to be worth collecting at all.

As he tours the studios this evening, Mr Balls might point out the paradox that, in a slightly different context, the Coalition regards that amount as significant. It is to save about £750m that it is slashing payments to the disabled and denying hundreds of thousands who have received the Disability Living Allowance the thrillingly renamed Personal Independence Plan.

Mr Balls might care to focus on so monumentally repellent a double standard. How dare the Government fund a kick-back to those on more than six times average earnings, he might ask, by thieving respite care from those with severely disabled children? By what surreal definition of "we're all in this together" is it right to give a banker on a £500,000 basic salary a present of £17,500, and rob a child with muscular dystrophy of a week's holiday in the countryside? This is the redistributive philosophy of Dooh Nibor, wicked dictator of the central Asian kleptocracy of Screwdaneedystan, whose name by weirdest happenstance is Robin Hood in reverse. He could make the point far more eloquently than I have, and it wouldn't resonate for these two reasons.

First, Mr Balls will eternally be associated with the perceived profligacy of his liege lord Gordon Brown, which many believe did much to create the monstrous deficit. Not being a fool, Mr Balls appreciates this. Hence his pre-Budget attempt to distance himself from Gordon at the weekend. Bless him for trying, but it's a futile quest. Ernie Wise resented being dismissed as Eric Morecambe's sidekick, and had the odd crack at a solo career, but what could he do? Some mental connections – Rolls-Royce, Huntley & Palmer, Ant 'n' Dec, Brady and Hindley – cannot be broken. Mr Balls is the poster boy for Brownite infantilising statism, and all his phoney disavowals of mainstream Keynsianism will no more persuade a soul otherwise than his slagging off his old guv'nor can remove the taint of his 15 years as Gordon's hatchet man/bitch.

Second – and much like the newly retired Dame Edna Everage, I mean this in a caring way – he is viscerally repulsive. It has been said of others before, but to the question "why do people take an instant hatred to Ed Balls?", the answer is that it saves time. He can bang on about blubbing whenever some old biddy learns that the miniature Crimean War gun carriage she keeps the After Eights in is worth £17.50 on Antiques Roadshow, and paint idyllic portraits of home life with him in his pinny making scones while Yvette pores over her Foreign Affairs brief. No one is persuaded that he is anything but the serpentine smearer and cockily abrasive bully boy whose only use for the defibrillator paddles, were Milibandroid the Younger to keel over, would be to put them to his leader's temples and finish the job.

 

You could weep for Ed Miliband. If only Alan Johnson hadn't been bone idle as shadow Chancellor, and put in a few hours flicking through his Ladybird Guide To Basic Economics (pop-up edition), he need not have taken the escape route from humiliation offered by his marital difficulties. With his raffish urbanity, Johnners would be perfect on the whirlwind studio tour this evening. He'd do a lovely Newsnight riff contrasting the freezing of the minimum wage for the young with the top rate tax cut. "I was stacking shelves in Tesco at 19, two babies to support," he'd say, "and learned about life on very low pay while at that age Mr Osborne was spending twice my weekly wage on having his white tie and tails dry-cleaned. I just can't understand why a Government with money to burn for the rich wants to entrench poverty for the poor."

Were Mr Johnson or even Yvette Cooper shadow Chancellor, I can't believe the Chancellor would risk this tax cut braggadocio. It almost looks designed to goad his opposite number into the sort of attack that inevitably backfires because, while few have the stomach to listen to Mr Balls at all, those who do hear only an uber-tribalist they instinctively know prays for economic catastrophe in the cause of personal ambition.

Ed Miliband has made only one obvious mistake as leader, but it could prove fatal. He had two options when Johnners quit, and made the wrong call. He should have gone for the swottily effective Yvette, who may be charmless, but lacks her domestic god's natural talent for inducing psychotic fantasy. Instead, he went for the one politician alive next to whom George Osborne looks cuddly.

Even now, it is not too late to swap the life partners' portfolios. It would be a gutsy manoeuvre, to put it mildly, but Mr Miliband has guts in abundance. The central importance of a shadow Chancellor to an opposition's chances cannot be overstated. Anyone who doubts this need only reflect that John Smith's promise, ironic as the unpopularity of the imminent reduction makes that seem today, to hike the top rate to 50 per cent did for Neil Kinnock in 1992. Mr Osborne's inheritance tax bribe of 2007 spooked Gordon Brown out of the snap election he would narrowly have won. Had he done so, Ed Balls would be Chancellor now. But he will not be Chancellor tomorrow if tomorrow lasts until doomsday, and he needs replacing at the very latest by yesterday.

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