Balls strengthens his position at Treasury questions

The shadow chancellor enjoyed a better day in the House as he pinned down Danny Alexander on living standards.

After his much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement, Ed Balls enjoyed a better outing at today's Treasury questions. Noting that Osborne had claimed that living standards were rising (based on the flawed "real household disposable income measure"), but that the IFS had subsequently said that they were falling, he asked Danny Alexander (who stood in for the absent Osborne): "who's right?" After quipping that it was a "pleasure" to see the shadow chancellor in his place and mockingly condemning the "unattributable briefing" against him from the Labour benches, Alexander could only reply that "the whole reason why millions of Britons are under financial pressure is because Labour’s economic mess cost every household in this country £3,000". But while voters might have accepted this line in 2010, they are less likely to do so after three years of stagnation. 

Balls then noted that Osborne was away in Brussels, where "the government is taking legal action to stop a cap on bank bonuses", and asked: "are the Liberal Democrats really right behind the Conservatives on this one too?" Alexander replied by joking that the shadow chancellor had "appointed a new special adviser on hand gestures - Greg Dyke" (a reference to Dyke's cut-throat gesture), adding: "at least that's the gesture his colleagues are making every time they hear him in the House." One was left with the impression that Alexander was more interested in cracking pre-prepared gags than in responding to Balls's questions. 

The shadow chancellor undoubtedly has his critics in Labour. Some MPs believe that he remains too defensive over the record of the last Labour government and too preoccupied with proving that he was right about austerity. Others, on the Blue Labour wing of the party, argue that he is insufficiently committed to Miliband's reformist agenda (one told me that he was a "conventional Brownite" who "doesn't really buy responsible capitalism"). But after his strong performance today and his defiant interview (stating in response to briefing: "I couldn't give a toss") on Sky, the odds on him being replaced as shadow chancellor will lengthen again. As Miliband recognises, there is no one else with the rare combination of political cunning and economic aptitude required to do the job. 

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.