Are two Eds better than one?

The appointment of Balls is a superb move by Miliband.

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.

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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.