Alan Johnson's departure has shocked hacks and politicos alike. I'm told that AJ told Ed M he'd be quitting "several days" ago -- in the words of one shadow cabinet minister I spoke to, "I'm amazed it didn't leak out earlier."
Whatever Johnson's "personal reasons" are for quitting the Labour front bench -- and I suspect we'll know in the not-too-distant future -- I'm delighted to see that Ed Balls, Labour's pre-eminent economist, has succeeded him. I made my own views clear in a column ("Only Ed has the balls for shadow chancellor") back in September 2010:
Balls's speech at Bloomberg in the City of London on 27 August, in which he set out a coherent and credible alternative to the coalition's fiscal sadism, has since been hailed by respected commentators such as Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times as well as leading Keynesian economists.
Memo to the Milibrothers: be bold. Ignore the deficit hawks, the Tory partisans and the faint-hearted on your own back benches. There is no alternative to Ed Balls as shadow chancellor at this time of national emergency.
So Balls's time has, finally, come. And he won't be needing an economics primer or textbook to help him prepare for his new brief. He was born to be shadow chancellor in an "age of austerity" and a Tory-led government. I suspect Theresa May will be delighted to see the back of this tenacious Labour attack dog; George Osborne, meanwhile, will be rather nervous to face Ed B at the next Treasury questions in the Commons. In the words of one wag on Twitter:
What's that I hear? Must be George Osborne's knees knocking together . . .
The problem Balls will have, however, is how to reconcile his own oft-stated and legitimate Keynesian criticisms of the Alistair Darling deficit-reduction plan -- ie, halving the deficit over four years -- with Ed Miliband's and Alan Johnson's adoption of the Darling plan as official Labour Party policy in October 2010. Here is Balls speaking at Bloomberg last August:
I told Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling in 2009 that -- whatever the media clamour at the time -- even trying to halve the deficit in four years was a mistake.
The pace was too severe to be credible or sustainable.
As both history and market realities teach us, the danger of too rapid deficit reduction is that it proves counterproductive . . .
Will Balls have to swallow his views in the name of collective responsibility and deference to his party leader?
On a side note, Gordon Brown might be joining the Home Secretary in cracking open a bottle of champers tonight. The top four jobs on the Labour front bench -- leader (Ed M), shadow chancellor (Ed B), shadow home (Yvette Cooper) and shadow foreign (Douglas Alexander) -- are all held by children of Brown.