Balls is right to target Mervyn King

The Bank of England governor crossed a line when he called for a “plan A”.

Just a few weeks ago, Ed Balls questioned whether Mervyn King's support for the government's austerity measures was as sincere as it appeared. He told Andrew Marr: "I don't think that Mervyn King in his heart of hearts really believes that crushing the economy in this way is the right way to get the economy moving."

But in an interview in today's FT, Labour's Keynesian pitbull launches a long-overdue assault on the governor of the Bank of England. He tells the paper: "The last thing you ever want is for the Bank of England to be drawn into the political arena . . . central bank governors have to be very careful about tying themselves too closely to fiscal strategies, especially when they are extreme and are making their job on monetary policy more complicated."

Balls is right. King's declaration this week that "there has to be a plan A" (a line first used by George Osborne himself) was his most overtly political statement yet. It amounted to an explicit rejection of Labour's calls for a "plan B".

As Sunder Katwala notes, it was little surprise that David Cameron chose to quote King at length during this week's PMQs. In one of his answers to Ed Miliband, Cameron said:

Above all, what I would say to him is what the governor of the Bank of England said this morning: "There has to be a plan A . . . This country needs fiscal consolidation to deal with the biggest Budget deficit in peacetime."

There are two possible explanations for King's behaviour. Either he is a highly naive man who does not anticipate that his words will be used for political purposes, or he is a highly partisan man who believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that the coalition's premature fiscal retrenchment will increase growth. The second seems the likelier explanation, but neither is palatable and both raise the question: is this man fit to lead an independent Bank of England?

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.