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 Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.