Balls makes his final job application

Digested read: "make me shadow chancellor, Ed".

With David Miliband set to announce his departure from frontline politics, Ed Balls is finally within touching distance of the prize he's craved for weeks: the shadow chancellorship.

A bold, if rather hoarse, Balls (too much karaoke) has just delivered his speech to the Labour conference, the closing passages of which are best described as an extended job application.

He lavished praise on Ed Miliband, something he wasn't keen to do at the New Statesman hustings in June, where the pair repeatedly clashed. After a particularly verbose answer from Balls, Miliband quipped: "It's like being back in the Treasury." To which Balls humourlessly replied: "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you normally do."

But today he delivered an encomium of praise to Labour's new leader:

Working with him for 16 years in opposition, in the Treasury and in Parliament, I always knew that - for Ed - fairness, opportunity and social justice weren't just slogans, they were his reason for coming to work in the morning - they were his defining purpose. Ed, I've been proud for 16 years to call you a colleague and a friend. And now I'm proud to call you our leader.

To translate: make me shadow chancellor, Ed. The only other figure with the intellect and political nous required to do the job is Balls's wife, Yvette Cooper. But, as my colleague Mehdi Hasan reported, Cooper has already agreed, as she did over the Labour leadership, to give her husband a free run.

And, to Balls's credit, he body-slammed the IMF with the full weight of a Harvard-trained economist:

Two years ago, the Irish government convinced itself they had to slash public services and cut child benefits to get their deficit down as fast as possible and reassure the money markets. The IMF praised the Irish government for its "sense of urgency". And what has happened since? Recession turned to slump, unemployment at a 16-year high, 19 consecutive months of deflation, consumer spending and tax revenues plummeting, and the deficit worse now than when they started.

We can now look forward to a four-year political wrestling match between Balls and George Osborne. As Peter Oborne recently wrote, the contest between the two will define this Parliament. Balls believes that economic recovery is impossible with cuts, Osborne believes that it is impossible without them. Only one of them can be proved right. Which it is may yet determine the result of the next election.

UPDATE: Balls has just confirmed that David Miliband will not serve in the new shadow cabinet. Here's what he told ITV:

I don't think David Miliband is leaving because of reasons of politics or ideology or policy. I don't think this is a political divide, I think this it's a personal decision. He's decided, and it seems he's decided in the last few days if he has, that for personal reasons he doesn't want to serve with his brother. I understand that because it must have been incredibly difficult to have lost to your brother in that way ... If as a brother you've decided that it's too difficult I think people would understand that. I don't think it's fair to find some big political split or divide here. I don't think that it really exists.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder