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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt