Is Alan Johnson the right man for the job of shadow chancellor?

The coalition, and the cuts consensus, have to be challenged, not indulged.

I was on Radio 4's World Tonight and BBC2's Newsnight yesterday discussing the appointment of the former home secretary Alan Johnson as the new shadow chancellor. I don't think any of us saw that coming -- in fact, I don't think Alan Johnson saw it coming! When I spoke to him at the Labour party conference in Manchester, he seemed keen to shadow the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and hold the coalition government's constitutional and electoral reform agenda to account. He has never served in the Treasury before and is not an expert on the economy.

Nick Robinson tells the following anecdote on his blog:

I once told Alan Johnson that some in the cabinet were arguing that he should replace Alastair Darling as chancellor. His communication skills, wry good humour and common sense were regarded by many as making him the perfect foil to Gordon Brown and more likely to cheer up the nation up than Darling himself.

I well recall his reaction – he looked like he'd swallowed a wasp. Unlike the other obvious candidate back then – Ed Balls – he had no economic training and was not desperate to do the job.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was hoping Ed Balls would be made shadow chancellor. I believe he was the best-qualified person for the job – and he deserved it, too, having delivered a scathing critique of Osbornomics at Bloomberg in August, and having harried and humiliated Michael Gove at the despatch box again and again over the summer. I also think it is odd that the two most formidable economists on the Labour front bench should be confined to home affairs (Balls) and foreign affairs (Yvette Cooper), where their impressive grasp of macroconomics will not be needed and where Cooper, in particular, might be wasted.

But what do I know? I'm just a hack. Ed Miliband is the leader and I'm guessing he has a plan. Plus, Johnson is an experienced and able politician, a great communicator with a fantastic sense of humour, as well as a fascinating backstory that contrasts with George Osborne's privileged upbringing.

Now, there has been much debate over the past 24 hours as to whether the Johnson appointment and the decision to deny Balls the post he so craved is a sign of strength or weakness on the part of Miliband. I was on BBC Radio Wales with the former Blair adviser John McTernan this morning: McTernan thinks the new Labour leader showed "strength" in giving Balls the home affairs, rather than the Treasury, brief. Indeed, the narrative emerging from the Blairites is "Ed Mili faced down Ed Balls".

But there is another view that says that Miliband the Younger capitulated to the Blairites and the right-wing press, who like to refer to him as "Red Ed" and to Ed Balls as a "deficit denier", by going with the safe option of Alan Johnson, a supporter of the candidate (Mili-D) who was backed by more Labour MPs than Mili-E was. Kevin Maguire, for example, says:

Ed Miliband's fluffed his first big call. Appointing Alan Johnson as Labour shadow chancellor is to stick with the Alistair Darling line on halving the deficit when Labour lost the election. The bold move was to put Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper in the job and shift the Labour position to slower cuts to keep the economy recovering.

I'm not sure where I stand on this. Perhaps, as I noted in a CIF piece yesterday, the personnel issue is irrelevant and we should all wait to see what Labour's policy response is to George Osborne's Spending Review on 20 October.

Ed Miliband has repeatedly referred to the Alistair Darling plan for deficit reduction (that is to say, halving the deficit over four years) as a "starting point" and told Channel 4 News the day after his conference speech that he'd like to do more with taxation, and less with spending cuts, than Darling had allowed for. Johnson's appointment might be part of a deliberate strategy by Miliband to take charge of the party's economic and, specifically, fiscal policy rather than outsource it to the shadow chancellor/chancellor (as Tony Blair did in the Nineties and Noughties).

It is worth remembering that Miliband taught economics at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2003-2004 and chaired the Treasury's Council of Economic Advisers between 2004 and 2005. Unlike Blair, and perhaps Johnson, he understands economics.

Meanwhile, the coalition's fiscal and welfare policies are in disarray – at the Conservative conference, a cut in child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers to save £1bn was followed by a transferable tax allowance for married couples which will cost £500m! In today's Daily Telegraph, Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, says that the proposed spending cuts are not "lashed to the mast" and that it "may be appropriate" to alter the plans in the event of a serious economic downturn. Like Ken Clarke, the Tory Justice Secretary, Huhne also admits that a double-dip recession is a possibility.

So now is not the time for Ed Miliband to go wobbly on deficit reduction. The opposition has to make clear that deep and immediate cuts will make the deficit get bigger, not smaller. And Alan Johnson needs to understand the Keynesian argument, and the "moral" argument – as his preferred leadership candidate, David Miliband, put it during the Compass hustings in June – for running deficits in downturns.

Here are some people Johnson should perhaps try to speak to for advice this week, ahead of the SR on 20 October:

* Paul Krugman

* David Blanchflower

* Anne Pettifor

* Martin Wolf

* Ed Balls :-)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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