The knives are out for Ed Balls. Again.
The shadow chancellor "really Ballsed things up," says Sun on Sunday columnist (and ex-Tory MP) Louise Mensch. "Shout it out - two Eds aren't better than one," says John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday. The Sunday Times leader column refers to "the Commons humiliation of Ed Balls".
"Ed's worst nightmare," screams the Mail on Sunday over a photo of the puce-faced shadow chancellor at the dispatch box on Thursday. Mail on Sunday columnist James Forsyth says a Labour MP told him: "For the first time, I can see Miliband going into the Election without Balls as Shadow Chancellor."
This is nonsense. Ed Miliband can't - and won't - sack Ed Balls, despite the shadow chancellor's undeniably awful performance in the Commons last week, in response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement.
Here are seven reasons why the shadow chancellor's job is safe:
1) Balls has been vindicated
Despite the avalanche of pro-Osborne spin from the centre-right press, and elements of the BBC, the fact is that the chancellor of the exchequer has missed the targets he set for himself, and the British economy, in 2010 on growth, jobs and borrowing. He lost Britain's triple-A credit rating along the way. This is still the slowest economic recovery for a hundred years.
Thus the recent return to growth, at a much lower level than forecast, changes nothing: Balls has been proved right on his central claim that Osborne's cuts were went too far, too fast.
Don't believe me? Go back and re-read Balls' Bloomberg speech from August 2010. Almost every word of it stands the test of time.
To sack the shadow chancellor basically for being correct, for being vindicated, would be - how should I put it? - odd.
2) Osborne hasn't won over public opinion
The polls don't offer the unequivocal endorsement of the Osborne 'plan' that some of the chancellor's media outriders might have us believe they do. As Janet Daley, no fan of Ed Balls, concedes in the Sunday Telegraph:
"A snap Ipsos MORI poll after Mr Osborne's spectacularly self-congratulatory vanquishing of Ed Balls in the House showed that public opinion was still divided neatly down the middle on the Government's economic policy, and more worryingly, four out of 10 agreed with Mr Balls that the Chancellor was "in denial" about the cost-of-living crisis, with only 27 per cent disagreeing. So much for the value of Dispatch Box performance."
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times/YouGov poll today shows more than half (52%) of voters think Osborne is doing a bad job as chancellor, more than half (53%) think the coalition is doing a bad job of managing the economy and less than one in six (15%) think the 'financial situation' of their own households will get better in the next 12 months. More people (34%) think the chancellor has "made the economy worse" (34%) than made it better (33%).
As with the Ipsos MORI poll, the YouGov poll shows that on the crucial cost-of-living-crisis question, more people trust Labour (33%) to make "the right decisions" than the Tories (25%). (Speaking on Sky News this morning, the shadow chancellor claimed he has had "more people in the 48 hours coming up to me..and saying 'Keep up the fight against this out of touch government'...")
And, while the YouGov poll shows Osborne ahead of Balls on the question of who would make the better chancellor of the exchequer, by 32% to 23% (45% of voters say they don't know!), Ipsos Mori, as recently as August, was pointing out that the two men "have often been neck-and-neck since 2011".
3) It's not necessarily the economy, stupid
Even if we accept that the YouGov poll is a more accurate barometer of public opinion, on Osborne vs Balls, and also take into account the plethora of other polls which do indeed suggest the public trust the Tories on the economy more than than they do Labour, so what? There's no infallible connection between leading on the economy and winning a general election.
As I have noted before, "the Tories led Labour by a whopping 22 points on the specific issue of 'managing the economy' in April 1997. Yet we all know what happened the following month."
In fact, the 1997 general election was preceded by two years of solid growth from Messrs John Major and Kenneth Clarke. Some paranoid Tories now worry that non-stop, positive growth this time round, in the run-up to May 2015, could, as in May 1997, make voters feel 'safer' about voting Labour back in.
4) Darling isn't the solution
The number of lazy commentators who enthusiastically answer "Alistair Darling" to the question: "Well, who could replace Ed Balls as shadow chancellor?" is astonishing. To accuse Balls of lacking credibility because of his role as an economic adviser to Gordon Brown - as an aide at the Treasury almost a decade ago - and then promptly calling for the man appointed by Brown as his chancellor, and who was sitting in the Treasury on the day the economy crashed, to replace Balls is the height of political madness. To say the Tory leadership wouldn't go after Darling - despite the Tory papers lavishing praise on him right now - once he was appointed shadow chancellor is either naive or disingenuous.
It pains me to have quote Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges, a conventional-wisdom-monger par excellence, and I promise not to make a habit of it, but Hodges was spot on when he wrote on Friday:
"We already know what the Tories 2015 slogan will be: 'Don't give the keys back to the people who crashed the car'. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were sitting in the back seat when the car ran into a brick wall in 2008. Alistair Darling was sitting behind the wheel.
"Darling may look like the political equivalent of Gandalf the Grey now. But after Lynton Crosby had finished with him he'd be about as credible an occupant of Number 11 as Paul Flowers."
Indeed. The recent dig at his "comatose" leadership of the pro-Union campaign in Scotland from a source inside Downing Street shows Darling doesn't possess the ring of immunity some inside the Labour Party assume he has.
5) What happens to Yvette?
Get rid of Balls and you still have Mrs Balls, i.e. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary who, lest we forget, topped the shadow cabinet elections in 2010.
What would Miliband do with Cooper? Make her the new shadow chancellor? She's a trained economist, after all, but (a) she takes the same Keynesian line on the economy as her husband so what would be the point in political terms?, (b) Labour's (misogynistic?) critics would simply argue that Balls was still running the party's economic policy, from behind the scenes, with his wifwe acting as a 'front', and (c) as Adam Boulton points out in his Sunday Times column today, Cooper "has failed to get the better of [home secrerary] Theresa May" in her current frontbench brief.
Whether or not Miliband decided to replace the shadow chancellor with the shadow chancellor's wife, the bigger issue is how he would deal with a bitter Balls and Cooper. The disgruntled duo would surely declare open war on their leader; Balls, assuming he wouldn't accept a demotion within the shadow cabinet, from the freedom of the backbenches. The fragile peace that the Labour leader secured within his party, against all odds, since 2010 would be shattered less than 18 months away from a general election. The shadow cabinet would be split down the middle.
Miliband would be a fool to fight a war on two fronts - against his shadow chancellor and his shadow home secretary. And Miliband is no fool.
6) Balls is a bruiser
It may be a cliché, and the shadow chancellor may tell friends he hates the 'bruiser' appellation, but it is difficult to think of a better word to describe him.
Balls is pugnacious, outspoken, defiant; Autumn Statement aside, he tends to tear strips off Osborne at the dispatch box and throws Cameron off his game at PMQs each week with a combination of heckles and hand gestures.
Miliband, as is often pointed out, lacks strong and combative figures such as Balls in his inner circle, people who are ready and eager for a fight with the likes of Lynton Crosby and Michael Gove. Alastair Campbell's return to the Labour frontline may help up to even it up a bit but the Labour leader still needs Balls too in the run-up to what will be the one of the dirtiest general election campaigns in living memory.
It is an election that will feature ferocious rows over the state of the economy - and an intense assault from the right on Labour's fiscal record in government. Who better than Balls to lead the fightback for the Opposition? Seriously? Of the other names, apart from Darling and Cooper, mentioned as potential replacements for Balls, Rachel Reeves, the former Bank of England economist, gets the macroeconomic arguments and Chuka Umunna, the former City lawyer, is a confident and assured communicator. But neither has the political experience or weight of Balls, who has been debating and arguing these issues since he left the FT to join Gordon Brown's shadow Treasury team in 1994 - that is, almost two decades ago.
7) Ed M trusts Ed B
He may not be the Labour leader's best friend and he may not have been his first choice for shadow chancellor (remember the hapless Alan Johnson? No? Nor do most people...), but Balls is now a key member of the Opposition top team and a close confidante of Ed Miliband. The two Eds meet weekly, in private, without aides, to talk economics - and politics. They are not friends in the conventional sense, and don't spend evenings together at the pub or the cinema, but Miliband knows, likes and, yes, believe it or not, trusts Balls. The Labour leader, say his friends, has faith and confidence in his former leadership rival's abilities as a politician and economist.
In fact, the 'Balls is a nightmare' view expressed by the Labour leader's director of policy, Torsten Bell (a former adviser, incidentally, to Alistair Darling) in a leaked email doesn't - contrary to popular opinion in the Westminster village - reflect the view of every single Miliband aide - nor, even, of Miliband himself. It is worth pointing out that the Labour leader has been careful not to badmouth or undermine his shadow chancellor, either in public or in private, and Balls has returned the favour - despite the shadow chancellor's army of media critics claiming he would instantly destabilise and plot against his leader when he was appointed to the job in January 2011.
Remember also: Miliband endorsed Balls' anti-austerity line from the get-go. He supported the 'too far, too fast' line and, like his shadow chancellor, has (rightly) refused to concede that Labour 'overspending' caused the global financial crisis. The idea that Miliband would now sack Balls for a single bad performance in the Commons chamber - a bearpit that the Labour leader himself dislikes and tends to dismiss the importance of - is, frankly, absurd.
Having broken a habit of a lifetime by quoting, and agreeing with, Dan Hodges, let me break another by quoting and agreeing with John Rentoul (albeit for completely different reasons): "I do not think Miliband will move Balls," says the Independent commentator and Blair hagiographer in his column today.
Neither do I.
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