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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.