Steve Richards: Miliband made a mistake. Now it has been corrected

To mark this down as a victory for the Labour left is wrong. Balls does not easily fit the caricature of 'Red Ed Two'

Related Topics

The departure of Alan Johnson and the elevation of Ed Balls are as significant as the outcome of Labour's leadership contest last year. The battle over economic policy determines the outcome of general elections. Shadow chancellors are almost as important as leaders of the opposition.

Over the past few months Labour has desperately needed a coherent and forensic assault on George Osborne's policies. In the longer term it requires a credible but popular alternative. Alan Johnson was never going to rise to the titanic tasks. From his first day in the post Johnson openly proclaimed his lack of expertise in economic matters, a proclamation that was proven in the subsequent months.

This was the easy opening phase for a shadow chancellor, when the main role is to expose flaws in a new government. The even more daunting task of framing an economic policy that might return Labour into power was almost certainly beyond Johnson. More immediately if Labour loses the current debate over whether it was responsible for the current economic gloom the next election will soon be beyond its reach. Johnson showed no sign of prevailing against the relentless insistence from Cameron and Osborne that Labour got the country into the "mess" that they seek to clear up by unprecedented cuts in spending.

On one level the Tory leadership has an easier target in Ed Balls. He was in the Treasury for most of the period of the last government. If they can pin the blame on Balls personally for the "mess" they have won the equivalent of the political jackpot.

They will struggle to do so. Balls is a formidable strategist and an economist, a rare combination in British politics. He is one of the few politicians capable of making policies while taking full account of a thousand political implications that arise from them.

Already, before yesterday's dramatic events, he had given some thought to how Labour should respond when Osborne presents his tax cutting pre-election Budget in a few years' time. He knows the traps Osborne plans to set and will not fall into them.

Although Ed Miliband has known about the probable departure of Johnson for a few days Balls had no idea until yesterday. He had given some thought to economic policy because he lives and breathes the subject.

Some commentators will argue that Balls's appointment marks a triumph for leftish Old Labour. This is a misreading. Balls has taken a robust approach to opposing spending cuts while the recovery is fragile, but he will not easily fit the caricature of Red Ed Two. Balls was the architect of Brown's early policies too, including Brown's highly successful phase as shadow chancellor. Tax cuts played as big a part as tax rises. Spending rises were limited at times. As a City minister Balls was highly respected by business leaders. But he – and Miliband – were also key figures in the successful and popular implementation of a tax rise to pay for investment in the NHS and recognises the importance of public spending in developing an economy and improving the quality of services.

Another easy line of attack is that Balls's elevation marks the return of the "Blair/Brown"tensions, with Balls wanting to become leader at the earliest opportunity. There is a danger of a repetition. The two Eds are not close and view each other with mutual wariness. Miliband's unease about Balls as a colleague was the main reason why Balls was not appointed as shadow chancellor in the first place last September. Balls has cause to view Miliband's soaring rise with a degree of bewilderment. He was the more senior figure in the Treasury.

But politically the duo share a similar political outlook. The two of them have also learnt from the destructive elements of the Blair/Brown relationship and know that their master, Brown, was damaged deeply by the interminable rivalry. Perhaps they will succumb to similar tensions, but it is not inevitable.

Overall this is a much more effective and better balanced Shadow Cabinet. Yvette Cooper was wasted at Foreign Affairs and will have a higher profile in Home Affairs. Douglas Alexander was going to be offered the Foreign Affairs brief last September. In his first shadow cabinet, Miliband planned to make Cooper shadow business secretary, but she insisted on a more senior post, having topped the shadow cabinet poll, and went to the Foreign Office brief.

Miliband faces an awkward few days. He has lost a shadow chancellor very soon after the appointment that he should never have made in the first place. Some of his internal critics will join the Conservative Party in claiming that Gordon Brown is continuing to lead Labour in the form of his two disciples. His judgement will be called into question. This is quite a big reshuffle so early on in his leadership. The hurdles are worth it to secure a more impressive and coherent team.

Cameron and Osborne have more cause for concern this morning than at any point since Miliband became leader.

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before