Balls contradicts Miliband as he backs third runway over HS2

Asked to choose between a third runway at Heathrow and High Speed 2, Balls replies: "third runway". Miliband would say the reverse.

The most significant line in Ed Balls's Times interview today has gone strangely unnoted by the paper, which splashes on the news that he was part of a "macho Brownite cabal".

Asked in a "quick fire" section whether he favours a "third runway or HS2", the shadow chancellor replies: "third runway". Why is that striking? Because it is the reverse of the answer that Ed Miliband would give. As Damian McBride's memoir reminds us, Miliband "effectively threatened to resign from the cabinet" over the planned third runway at Heathrow, a move that successfully torpedoed the policy. Since then, shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle has said that the idea is "off the agenda" on account of Miliband's past opposition.

On HS2, while Balls is increasingly sceptical of the new high speed line, warning that there will be "no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury", Miliband remains personally supportive of the project, which was launched by Andrew Adonis, the party's shadow infrastructure minister and man he has appointed to lead Labour's economic growth review.

It has long been an open secret in Westminster that Balls believes Labour should prioritise airport expansion over HS2 but his decision to put this fact on record is significant.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.