Ed Balls comes home

Can the new shadow chancellor finally escape his past?

The first emotion was shock. Resignations remind politicians of their own professional mortality, and this one had the added impact of absolute surprise. There was also sympathy; Alan Johnson was genuinely popular, and there was a romance to his political journey that won the empathy of all but the most hard-bitten parliamentary observers.

But politicians are primarily pragmatists. This morning the circus has moved on.

The reaction of Ed Balls's supporters to his elevation to shadow chancellor was understandably euphoric, undiplomatically so, in the eyes of one confidant: "Ed was looking very happy on TV. Perhaps a bit too happy, given the circumstances."

The reaction of the Blairites was equally predictable. "We're doomed," said one former aide. "I haven't felt this bad since David lost," said another.

Set aside the circumstances of Alan Johnson's departure. Despite the swirling conspiracies, they are ultimately a personal matter, with no broader political significance. But the appointment of Ed "Cojones" to de facto deputy leader of the party is of monumental importance.

In truth, the prevailing mood at Westminster last night was one of uncertainty. Not negativity, but an uncharacteristic lack of clarity about how events will play out.

On one level, there is relief in Ed Miliband's circle that a perceived political problem has been taken out of their hands. His shadow chancellor's "political primer" joke was starting to wear thin, while continuing challenges on a host of issues, from 50p tax through tuition fees to party reform, had proved debilitating. But despite this, Miliband remained convinced that Johnson's "challenges" were policy-based, and not motivated by any deeper ill-will towards him or his leadership.

"Ed genuinely believed Alan wanted him to be successful. He never felt Alan was plotting or agitating," says an insider.

There is less certainty about the relationship between the leader and his new shadow chancellor. Some of those close to Balls were asserting last night that there has been a rapprochement between the two former members of the Brownite inner circle. That may be the case, but if there has been, it's a conveniently recent occurrence.

Before Christmas, Balls was almost embarrassingly offhand in his criticism of his leader's performance at PMQs. And the change isn't something that's filtered through to the rest of the shadow cabinet. "The root of the problem is Ed Miliband usurping Ed Balls's position within the party. And that in turn has its origins in the nature of their relationship when they were both working for Gordon. You don't overcome issues like that in the space of a couple of weeks," said one shadow cabinet source.

What is true is that since the turn of the year all members of the shadow cabinet have taken a conscious decision to be more openly supportive of Miliband's efforts to establish his leadership, and Balls has been more than pulling his weight as part of that new collegiate effort. "Everyone's agreed that where there are differences we have to work them through internally, not through the pages of the Guardian," said an insider. "Ed recognises that."

But the chemistry between the men is one issue. Of greater significance is the approach that Balls will bring to his new economic brief. For the new shadow chancellor, there is said to be almost a sense of "coming home" to the portfolio he cherished above all others. And there is broad acknowledgment that he has no equal when it comes to technical mastery of the complexities of economic policy.

Yet there is also concern over his political positioning on issues such as the deficit and the threat of an economic downturn. "The last thing we need is a rerun of the Bloomberg agenda," said a senior party adviser, referring to Balls's recent speech questioning Alistair Darling's strategy for deficit reduction. It was also noticeable that at the weekend, Ed Miliband was making efforts to distance himself from predictions of a double-dip recession, a warning that Balls made a central plank of his leadership platform. Indeed, so vigorous were Balls's stances on both issues that David Miliband had concluded he would be unable to offer Balls the role of shadow chancellor were he to prevail in the leadership contest.

But the biggest challenge facing Labour's new leadership team is not one of positioning or personality, but legacy. Ed Miliband is attempting to break with the past. His entire narrative is built around "moving on" from New Labour.

Balls, by contrast, has distinguished himself through his fealty to Gordon Brown. Time and again, personal political interest cried out for him to sever his link with his mentor. And time and again he refused. Ed Miliband secured the leadership because he brilliantly, and imperceptibly, decoupled himself from Brown. Balls lost, in part, because he could never bring himself to do so.

He is about to be confronted with that choice once again. The Tories already spy an opportunity. "How can he lecture us on the deficit? His policies created the deficit." "How dare he lecture us on the bankers? He created the very banking regulations that failed us."

Whether Balls can finally escape from his past will go a long way to determining whether he truly has come home as shadow chancellor. And that in turn will go a long way towards determining the fate of the two men who this morning represent a brand new power axis at the top of the Labour Party.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.