The return of Darling as shadow chancellor would be a gift to the Tories

The appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the crash would make it even easier for the Tories to warn "don't give the keys back".

Ed Balls's much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement has restarted the speculation about whether he will be replaced as shadow chancellor before the general election. Among commentators, Alistair Darling is again being touted as the ideal replacement. He's done the job before and has indicated that he'd be open to a frontbench role once he's finished saving the Union in September 2014. 

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne makes the standard case for Darling this morning: "He would bring unrivalled goodwill as the man credited with saving the British financial system in 2010 and then saving the union in 2014. The arrival of Alastair Darling just nine months before the general election would do wonders for Labour’s chances...because no British politician is held in as much respect as Mr Darling is today." 

But while the replacement of Balls with Darling would win plaudits from the commentariat (who revere him for his battles with Brown), it is less certain that it would improve Labour's election prospects. Borrowing a line from Barack Obama, the Tories' message at the next election will be "Britain is on the right track. Don't give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place", one that could persuade nervous voters to stick with the status quo.

In this regard, the appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis would be a political gift to the Tories. Osborne and Cameron make much of Balls's Treasury past, but how many outside of Westminster know that he was City minister from 2006-07, or that he previously served as Brown's special adviser? Voters are more likely to remember him for his time as Schools Secretary than his time as Brown's brain. 

Darling's supporters will point out that he was the man who stopped the banks from going under, not the man responsible for the system of light-touch regulation that created the crisis. Others will note that he urged Brown to be more open about the cuts that Labour would have to make in an attempt to prevent the Tories from claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility for themselves. (Although it's worth recalling that it was also Darling who vetoed Balls's smart call for Labour to rule out a post-election VAT rise.)

But all of this detail will be lost on voters. To them, Darling is the man with "the weird eyebrows" (yes, as any pollster will tell you, voters are shallow) who was at the helm of the ship when it hit the iceberg. Are they really going to trust him with the economy again? Labour would undoubtedly benefit from the return of a politician as experienced and as shrewd as Darling but the shadow chancellorship is not the job for him. 

I suspect that Ed Miliband, who has notably avoided returning "greybeards" to the frontbench in favour of promoting the "new generation", recognises as much. Balls, who remains the best qualified figure for the job, is still more likely than not to be in his post come May 2015. 

Ed Miliband with Alistair Darling at the Labour conference in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.