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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump