Balls exploits the Tories' normality deficit

Calling for cheaper prices is an attempt to portray Cameron and Osborne as out of touch.

The big news line from Ed Balls's speech at the London School of Economics this morning is the call for an emergency tax cut. George Osborne's Plan A for the economy isn't working, the shadow chancellor argued. Again. The economy needs a jump start of fiscal loosening in the form of a temporary VAT reduction. Balls made a pretty robust case for cutting sales taxes -- it can be implemented immediately; it releases cash directly to consumers and company bottom lines. He also argued that the VAT cut introduced by Alistair Darling in the 2008 pre-budget report worked, citing an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis for corroboration.

Labour got rough ride over that decision. In fact, it was widely ridiculed with jibes along the lines: "how does shaving a few pennies off the price of a new TV save the economy from crisis?" But that was before inflation had become an urgent concern for squeezed consumers and the government. When challenged on the effectiveness of the proposed cut in the Q&A after the speech, Balls had a deft political parry: Tory critics might not notice a VAT holiday (the implication being that they can afford higher prices) but ordinary folk would.

Both Labour and Tory private polling shows the public are wary of David Cameron and George Osborne as "not like ordinary people" -- distant, aloof. Balls and Miliband haven't yet found a way of really capitalising on the Conservatives' normality deficit, but calling for cheaper prices at the checkout is a try.

This was billed as a lecture rather than a speech -- a forensic critique of the government's macroeconomic strategy and not just another blast of political rhetoric.

But this is Ed Balls, we're talking about; the man who was once described to me by a senior Labour party strategist as "someone who wakes up every morning asking himself how he can destroy the Tories." The economic argument around the deficit was pretty familiar -- a rococo riff on the established theme of "too far, too fast". The political angle shone through in repeated references to the Tories' shambolic exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992. The argument is that George Osborne's single-minded determination to stick with fiscal Plan A is starting to resemble Norman Lamont's predicament, sticking with a fixed exchange rate as evidence mounted that it was an unsustainable arrangement. Whereas Lamont was institutionally locked into the ERM, Balls argues, Osborne could change course. There are alternatives. Lamont's hands were tied; Osborne's are not. That makes the rigidity all the more perverse and the Chancellor more culpable if things go wrong.

I counted ten references to the ERM. It was the unifying theme of the speech. Of course it was. The ERM exit -- Black Wednesday -- was famously the moment the Tories lost credibility on the economy. David Cameron was an advisor to Lamont at the time. No wonder Balls wants the analogy to stick.

An aside: Balls had a relatively contrite line about Labour's fiscal record. "Of course we didn't spend all of the money wisely. No government does." When I asked him to specify where there had been a lack of wisdom he cited Labour's multiple and wasteful reorganisations in healthcare, in particular the fiddling around with the structure of Primary Care Trusts. It's a good one to own up to, for pretty obvious reasons.

The spending line was one of a few very last minute additions to the speech, tacked on this morning, apparently; recognition perhaps that Labour needs to sound a little more penitent about the past before it can be trusted to talk about the future?

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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