Don't underestimate Ed Balls

The shadow chancellor is repeating the trick that played so well before the 1997 election.

It's seldom a good idea to underestimate your opponent, so when I'd stopped hugging myself at what Twitter was telling me Ed Balls was saying over the weekend, I reasoned he isn't a fool and so there must be method to his apparent madness. Which of course, there is.

And so picture if you will the shadow chancellor luxuriating in a large armchair and stroking a white cat as I take you through his dastardly scheme...

There has of course been some misrepresentation of the facts. Ed Ball's speech actually positions him as the irritating local, replying to a request for directions with a lopsided grin and a sarcastic "I wouldn't have started from here'. This promise to map out a course from wherever he finds himself in 2015 conveniently saves him coming up with any solutions of his own for a while and at the same time allowing him all the wriggle room he needs over coming months.

And it's a trick he's seen pulled off before. It's from the Gordon Brown school of 'how to demonstrate economic competence if you're Labour' that played so well pre the 1997 election. Accept Osborne's sums, say you'll spend the money they leave you more wisely - spending is an area the electorate believes Labour does know something about -and you win. It's worked once before...

And it needs to work again. Because for all the distinctiveness of the shadow chancellor's Keynesian approach, the country seems more inclined to support the notion of belt tightening and austerity to dig us out of the economic mess we find ourselves mired in

There are also tactical advantages to all this. It's been Balls over the last few months who's been leading the doe-eyed flirting with us Lib Dems. What better way to lay the groundwork for a future potential pact, than to accept that all that has gone before cannot be undone? It's like the shadow chancellor is gearing himself up to come over, give us a big hug and say 'what's past is past'.

Of course, some people within the Labour movement are going to be upset by all this - especially the unions when they read about accepting the need for public sector pay freezes. But the unions weren't exactly supportive of Ed Balls during the leadership campaign were they? So not much to lose there. The only one who's going to suffer in that camp is poor Ed Miliband. As some idiot pointed out on Friday, Miliband is safe enough in the leadership while he's seen as playing the game by the rules of the party - but as soon as he starts going anywhere near the centre, the gloves are off, and he's in trouble. And that opens all sorts of doors.

Of course, I hear you cry, the man wielding the knife never gets to lead - Balls wouldn't be so obvious. Except of course, in the Balls household, it's not Ed's turn to go for the leadership - and Yvette is untouched by all this. Isn't it better when you sort out these potential family disputes about whose turn it is to be leader in a mature fashion behind closed doors? If only everyone took the same approach.

So all in all, the latest front in the battle for the economic high ground opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for the Balls camp.

He's not stupid, is he....

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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