Why Miliband hasn't guaranteed that Balls will be Chancellor

It would look presumptive to start naming his cabinet before the election and would put him under pressure to guarantee others their jobs.

In his interview on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Ed Miliband again guaranteed that Ed Balls would be shadow chancellor at the time of the general election. Asked "is Ed Balls safe in his job at the moment?" he replied: "Ed Balls is doing a really good job and, absolutely, I've said that he's going to be the shadow chancellor going with me into the election". That should put an end to speculation that Alistair Darling could return to his old job after the Scottish independence referendum, or that Chuka Umunna or Rachel Reeves could be rapidly promoted. But some asked why Miliband didn't go further and pledge that Balls would serve as chancellor in a Labour government. Is he planning to replace him after May 2015? Is he holding out the post for the Lib Dems? The speculation goes on.

But as one Labour source pointed out to me this morning, there are two considerations that likely explain why Miliband chose not to give this guarantee. The first is that it would look "presumptive" for him to start announcing what jobs his shadow cabinet ministers will do in government (akin to "measuring up the curtains"). It would give the impression that Labour believes the voters have already made up their minds. The second is that guaranteeing Balls will serve as chancellor would inevitably lead to speculation about other top positions. Will Harriet Harman be deputy prime minister? Will Douglas Alexander be foreign secretary? Miliband can't have one rule for Balls and another for them. For these reasons, much as journalists may wish otherwise, don't expect Miliband to start naming his cabinet in advance of 7 May 2015.

Miliband went on to say of Balls: "People have their critics; the thing I'd say to you about Ed Balls? He's got a clear sense of what this economy needs, he's working with me on tackling the cost-of-living crisis that we face and he's got the toughness to stand up to lots of people who want more spending when actually it's going to be tough for Labour."

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.