Balls reveals that Miliband hasn't guaranteed his position

Shadow chancellor says he has not asked Miliband whether he will be in his post in 2015.

In an interview in today's Times (£), Ed Balls reveals that Ed Miliband has not guaranteed that he will be shadow chancellor at the next election. He tells the paper: "I’ve never asked him. It’s a bit arrogant thinking about what sort of job you do."

There is nothing unusual about this (leaders always give themselves maximum flexibility) but it will encourage speculation that Balls could be moved before 2015. His below-par response to the Autumn Statement, which he compared to a top footballer missing a penalty, has emboldened those in the party who believe Miliband was wrong to give him the job in the first place. One proposal doing the rounds is for Alistair Darling, fresh from leading the unionist camp to victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, to return as shadow chancellor in time for the election. Balls will still almost certainly remain in his post (the right decision, in my view) but it's no longer unthinkable that he could accept a different job.

Elsewhere in the interview, Balls suggests that economic volatility means Labour will hold back its major fiscal decisions until the year of the election. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."

With a Spending Review due to be held next year, George Osborne will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would stick to the Conservatives' spending plans for the opening years of the next parliament, as it did in 1997. Balls, one of the architects of the '97 pledge, is keen to keep this option open, but his words are an indication that he won't be making a decision anytime soon. With forecast borrowing revised up by £212bn since 2010, it's not hard to see why.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.