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.

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Can power-sharing in Northern Ireland be saved?

Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson has called for David Cameron to suspend the devolved assembly after allegations that the IRA is armed and functioning once more.

Northern Ireland’s descent into political crisis continues to roll on and shows no sign of abating. Last night, First Minister Peter Robinson called on David Cameron to step in and suspend the devolved assembly. His comments were perhaps the strongest sign yet that the country’s political institutions are on the brink of imminent collapse.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street yesterday following talks with the Prime Minister, Robinson said that he has asked Cameron to suspend Stormont in order to give local politicians the space to resolve ongoing tensions.

While rows between parties have been brewing for weeks, the summer recess has meant that some of the immediate pressure for resolution has been off. However, the assembly is due to return on Monday and all parties agree that they cannot simply shuffle back into committee rooms and voting chambers as if nothing has happened.

The word “crisis” is a familiar word in Northern Irish political discourse. The fledgling power-sharing assembly is the constant site of antagonistic exchanges and seemingly insurmountable problems as politicians size each other up before backing down and each announcing they that have triumphed over the others. However, it is looking more and more likely that the politicians have slowly backed themselves into different corners from which they will not be able to easily escape.

The current crisis centres on the revelation last month that the IRA is armed and functioning. Their presence came to light when former IRA commander, Jock Davison, was shot dead in front of a group of school children in May. On 12 August, a former IRA member, Kevin McGuigan was shot dead in front of his wife, in what is believed may have been a retaliatory killing for Davison’s death. The political scene was tense with speculation and suspicion over whether this proved the IRA was either back or indeed had never really gone away, despite apparently decommissioning its weapons as part of the peace process. The whisperings came to the fore when the head of the police service for Northern Ireland confirmed that he believes the IRA exists and had been involved in McGuigan’s death.

The announcement triggered a series of events which have led to the current crisis. One of the key conditions of Republicans’ involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland in 1998 was that the IRA lay down its arms and commit to peace. So the sudden re-emergence of the organisation prompted unionists to claim that if the IRA were back and armed then Sinn Fein must be excluded from Stormont. On Saturday the Ulster Unionists’ council voted unanimously to leave the parliament. Their one government minister resigned with effect from midnight last night.

The pressure is now on the other unionist party, the Democratic Unionists which is led by First Minister Peter Robinson. They must decide whether to pull out of the Assembly, forcing it to collapse. Most believed that their posturing about excluding the IRA was merely hollow talk for the purposes of pandering to their electorate by being seen to take a tough stance on Republicanism. However, now that the Ulster Unionists have pulled out the DUP are under pressure to do the same or risk losing face and seeming a “soft touch” by comparison.

Last night’s plea to David Cameron to suspend the assembly would mean that the parties do not have to return from recess on Monday and would buy the DUP more time to think through their next steps.

The request came after the party tried to submit a motion adjourning the assembly but it failed to pass after being overruled by other parties.

If David Cameron does suspend the assembly, it will be a significant setback for the peace process in Northern Ireland. Since powers were devolved to it in 2000, it has been suspended no fewer than four times. However, the last such occasion was in 2007 and to do so again in 2015 would represent an admission that politics in the region haven’t matured or developed much since then.

However, if Downing Street does not suspend Stormont, the Northern Irish Parliament faces an impossible position. It is simply not feasible that the parties can return to business as usual and when the IRA’s shadow now hangs heavily over the Parliament .

Arlene Foster, a senior DUP politician and close ally of Peter Robinson has said that if Cameron refuses to suspend it then the party “will take action”. However, she could not specify what this action would be, making her remarks sound not so much like a dramatic threat as the vague words representative of a party, a country and political structure that simply does not know where next to turn in unchartered and increasingly strained territory.

Northern Ireland’s politicians are not known for biting their tongues or holding back from dramatic announcements when they have something to say. The DUP are currently pleading for time, but what they do with it or whether it will save Northern Ireland’s political structures is anyone’s guess.