Why Balls would be a difficult shadow chancellor for David

Their disagreements over the deficit would be effortlessly exploited by the Tories.

The intermittent rumours that Ed Balls would drop out of the Labour leadership race and endorse David Miliband may have come to nothing, but relations between the two camps have improved in recent weeks.

In an interview in today's Financial Times (where he once worked), Balls points out that the pair "go back a long way" and that he knew Miliband long before he knew Tony Blair.

Yet the idea that Balls is virtually guaranteed the shadow chancellorship, should Miliband win, is wide of the mark. The piece notes:

David Miliband's supporters say they cannot see Mr Balls being made shadow chancellor, should their man win. They fear he might use the Treasury role as a chance to build an alternative power base, replicating the old Blair-Brown feud.

A potentially greater obstacle is the disagreement between Miliband and Balls over the deficit. While Miliband has defended the Brown-Darling pledge to halve the £155bn deficit by 2014, Balls has criticised the target and admitted that he privately opposed it.

He told the BBC in July:

I always accepted collective responsibility but at the time, in 2009, I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn't think it could have been done.

Last week he said: "Going forward, I think even halving the deficit in four years was too ambitious . . . I think to do a slower and steadier pace going forward is actually more likely to support jobs and growth, more likely to boost financial-market confidence and likely to be fairer as well."

By contrast, in his recent speech at the King Solomon Academy, Miliband declared:

I will not cede ground to the government when it comes to tackling the deficit. They are the ones in denial, not us. It is right to cut the deficit in half over four years starting next April. That would mean very difficult choices.

Given this very public difference of opinion, I'd be surprised if Miliband handed the Tories a perfect opportunity to yet again exploit the disagreements between a Labour leader and his (shadow) chancellor. One can imagine Conservative backbenchers quoting Balls's criticisms as Miliband defended Labour's deficit reduction plan from the despatch box.

Should Miliband win, Balls is more likely to be appointed shadow home secretary, a post ideally suited to his forensic mind and combative style.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.