Ed Balls and George Osborne on The Andrew Marr Show this morning. Photograph: BBC.
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Balls ambushes Osborne with handshake on head-to-head TV debate

The Chancellor later tried to wriggle out of a one-to-one debate, saying that Danny Alexander should also be invited. 

Ahead of this week's Budget, Ed Balls (who I profile in the current NS) and George Osborne made their usual appearances on the Andrew Marr show. The best moment, as ever, came after their separate interviews when they appeared together on the studio sofa.

After Marr raised the subject of the TV debates, Balls ambushed Osborne by inviting him to shake hands on a head-to-head contest between them before the election. "Come on, George, let's go for it," he said. The Chancellor acceded, telling Balls, "I'm happy to meet you in a debate", and shaking his hand. But no sooner had he done so than he added: "Well, we're going to see who else wants to be invited ... I've got a very effective Chief Secretary [Danny Alexander] who I would think would also want to be part of that debate", prompting Balls to reply: "No, no, one-to-one, we just shook on it". It was a brilliant manoeuvre by Balls, although the image of him shaking hands with Osborne will doubtless by exploited by the anti-austerity Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

In their earlier interviews, both men sought to deploy their standard attack lines but were distracted by the question of how they would behave in a hung parliament. Pressed repeatedly on whether Labour would do a deal with the SNP, Balls refused to rule one out, telling Marr: "You know, Andrew, you've been covering politics for 30 years, parties, large parties, at this stage say 'we're fighting for a majority'". When asked whether the Tories could work with Ukip (Nigel Farage has offered to support them in return for an EU referendum before Christmas), Osborne similarly said: "We are going to get ... we are fighting for a majority. We only need 23 more seats to get that majority".

But both men's answers betrayed their lack of confidence in winning outright. Balls's suggested that he was obliged to maintain the pretence that Labour is fighting for a majority, even if one is unlikely, while Osborne began by saying that the Tories would win a majority before reverting to "we are fighting" (he knows that the former is extremely unlikely). The reason neither of them is prepared to rule out working with the smaller parties is precisely because they may need to do so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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