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Have the Balls Bashers Gone Mad?

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Double dip recessions, credit downgrades, missed debt targets, bungled budgets... it's all the fault of... wait for it... Ed Balls.

In recent weeks, political pundits have been queuing up to call for the head not of the chancellor but of the shadow chancellor. Anthony Seldon, biographer of John Major and Tony Blair and cheerleader for Britain's public schools, used an open letter in the New Statesman to tell Balls "to fall on [his] sword". "Economic credibility", wrote the master of Wellington College, "would be more readily restored with your departure".

The Tory commentator Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, went further, saying the "intellectually bankrupt" Balls "should allow his party leader to sack him as brutally as possible". Even Guardian columnists joined in - "If only Ed Miliband would dump Ed Balls and recast Alistair Darling", proclaimed Marina Hyde.

The Balls bashers have picked the oddest of odd times to ramp up their attacks on the shadow chancellor. Balls has been vindicated. Growth, as he predicted, has ground to a halt. Austerity has failed on its own terms: the Chancellor is borrowing a whopping £212billion more than he had planned to, as the British economy endures its longest and slowest recovery for a hundred years.

Yet it is Balls, and not George Osborne, being subjected to criticism and cat calls, ridicule and resignation requests. In the weird world of Westminster, up is down, hot is cold.

The bizarre bad timing of the Balls bashers is matched by a fundamentally flawed analysis of public opinion. "Your critique of the government's austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince", declared Seldon in his unsolicited missive to the shadow Chancellor.

Sorry, Anthony, but this is flatly untrue. Consider the results of the latest Sunday Times/YouGov poll, published on 3 March. Balls' message of "too far, too fast" seems to have been received loud and clear outside the grounds of Wellington College. Almost half of voters (49%) say the coalition is "cutting too much and should reduce the size or pace of the cuts" compared to a mere fifth (20%) who believe the Tory-led government is "getting the balance about right".

Meanwhile, 40% of voters tell YouGov the government should focus on getting growth "even if this means the deficit stays longer, or gets worse" compared to 31% of voters who say it "should stick to its current strategy of reducing the deficit, even if this means growth remains slow". Seldon may be a proud resident of Planet Austerity; the British public isn't.

Is it any wonder then that since the shadow Chancellor's appointment in January 2011, the Tories' 10-point lead on the economy has morphed into a two-point lead for Labour (as of 25 February 2013)?

Hold on, say the Balls bashers, doesn't Osborne lead his Labour shadow on the question of which man would make "the best Chancellor"? Yes, but only by a single percentage point (11% to 10%), three years after entering the Treasury and less than five years since Labour presided over the biggest financial crisis of our lifetimes. Oh, and did I mention that a majority (53%) of voters want Osborne sacked from the Treasury? To pretend the opposition's attacks on the Chancellor - devised and relentlessly executed by Balls - haven't contributed to the crisis of public (and Tory) confidence in the once-lauded Osborne is as disingenuous as it is ungenerous.

So, to borrow a line from conspiracy theorists the world over: cui bono? Whose benefit would the decapitation of Balls serve? We are, in fact, witnessing the oldest trick in the party-political playbook. Conservative MPs may "try to pretend that [Balls] is their biggest asset", admits Tory blogger Iain Dale, but the inconvenient truth is that "for most it is pure bravado". The shadow Chancellor, concludes Dale, is "respected and feared by the Conservatives".

"You have to ask the question: 'Why are Tories so desperate to see Ed go?'" a close ally of the shadow Chancellor tells me. "The truth is that he is the person who gives them the hardest time."

So what are the Labour/left/Guardian critics of Balls up to? Do they really prefer David Miliband, who says he is willing to accept the "envelope" on welfare spending set by the coalition, as shadow Chancellor? Do they hark for Balls's predecessor Alan Johnson, who now says Labour should commit to sticking to the government's spending limits if elected in 2015 as it is "difficult to think what else you can do"? Or maybe Alistair Darling, who muddied the water between Labour and the Tories in the run-up to the 2010 election by publicly pledging "tougher and deeper" spending cuts than those under Margaret Thatcher (and privately agitating for a VAT rise)?

Let's be clear: Balls' record since becoming shadow chancellor in January 2011 is far from perfect. He delayed and hesitated before throwing his support behind a national investment bank and a mansion tax; he continues to oppose a much-needed 'Robin Hood' tax on financial transactions; he gaffed badly when he told the Guardian in January 2012 that Labour may have to "keep all these [coalition] cuts".

Nevertheless, it would be politically suicidal for 'little Ed' to consign 'big Ed' to the backbenches, where he would sulk, brood, brief and plot. And say what you like about Balls' record in government but so far, in opposition, he has been nothing but loyal and on-message - as even his Blairite colleagues in the shadow cabinet (privately) concede.

To remove Ed Balls from the post of shadow Chancellor would deprive the opposition of its most accomplished macroeconomist - and its fiercest attack dog. It would also be an act of supreme cowardice, not strength, on the part of Ed Miliband. Like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before him, the Labour leader would be dancing to the tunes of the right-wing media echo chamber - the Dacres, the Desmonds, the Murdochs.

But he won't do it. Miliband not only shares his shadow Chancellor's analysis of austerity economics but sees Balls as a friend, ally and adviser. And the Labour leader isn't a fool, either. Centre-right commentators have "their own agenda", Miliband told me in the summer of 2010, in the midst of the Labour leadership race. "They want to define the ground of politics on the right. It is part of our job to define the ground of politics in a different place and not to take advice from people who don't have the less well-off's interests at heart."

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