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Unlike Brown, Balls knows he can’t fulfil his ambitions by plotting

For now, Balls's ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor.

The longest journey begins, as every family knows, not with a single step but with a wail from the back seat of “Are we nearly there yet?” Heading back to Westminster from their summer holidays, David Cameron, Ed Mili­band and Nick Clegg must feel like harried parents driving cars full of fidgety MPs with pestiferous questions. When will the economy grow? How do we win a majority? Why aren’t we doing better? “Can’t you just be patient?” the leaders cry.

The next election will be in May 2015. Cam­eron has no incentive to hasten that reckoning. Even if he wanted to dissolve parliament prematurely, the law setting fixed terms of five years makes the task unfeasible. Nearly there? We’re only just approaching the halfway mark.

There is ample time to decide manifestos and campaign strategies but all three leaders have found the limit of how much discipline can be instilled by asking for patience. The problem is that none of them has offered a clear enough account of his ideal destination. Cursors blink on empty screens where visions of a newly con­fident, prosperous Britain are to be drafted.

Monstrous offspring

The gap yawns wider on the government’s side. George Osborne took charge of an economy that was growing; now it is shrinking. He tries to blame structural flaws bequeathed by Labour and turbulence from the eurozone, which is still an admission of sorts that the three Budgets and Spending Review he has authored were inadequate responses. The kindest gloss that can be put on such a record is that another chancellor might have failed too, failed differently.

The hope in Downing Street is that public expectations of a national renaissance can be managed downwards so that any recovery – just a glimmer of growth – will be considered an achievement and the idea of changing prime minister will feel like a dangerous gamble. As one MP close to No 10 puts it: “You don’t change the general in the middle of a war.” (The vital assumption is that, by 2015, the war against economic decline will look winnable and Mili­band will wear military fatigues awkwardly.)

It is with that message in mind that the Prime Minister warned at the start of the summer that austerity had no end in sight. “I don’t see a time when difficult spending choices are going to go away,” Cameron said in an interview in the Daily Telegraph. Conservative strategists believe they can still mobilise public suspicion that Labour only knows how to govern by indiscriminately spending money that isn’t there.
The main target of that attack is Ed Balls, caricatured by Tories as the monstrous offspring of Gordon Brown. It helps their case that some Labour MPs privately depict the shadow chancellor as a reactionary figure, suffocating new talent, squashing ideas that are not his own, operating a discreet power network – a party within the party – that tolerates Miliband’s leadership but does not defer to it.

Comparisons with the machinations that undermined Tony Blair’s leadership are inevitable. They are also unfair. Brown felt cheated out of an entitlement to be prime minister and, since Labour was already in power, knew the crown could be snatched by plotting alone. Balls has tested his leadership appeal in an election and lost. For now, his ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor and, confident though he might be of his intellectual primacy, he knows that to sabotage Miliband’s bid for No 10 would be to rob himself of the Treasury.

To the charge of domineering, Balls’s team responds that shadow ministers are disgruntled because of a ban on announcements that suggest future spending commitments. Complaints about the shadow chancellor’s iron grip are thus seen as proof of his credentials as a fiscal disciplinarian and, by extension, as a rebuttal of the Tory charge of spendaholism. “We’re not losing any sleep over that one,” says a Balls ally.

Even those shadow ministers who find Balls’s back-room swagger unpalatable agree that the accusation of “deficit denial” – flinching from the need to impose budgetary restraint – is baseless. The concern is more that both Eds refuse to engage with a wider debate over what government can reasonably aim to do on tighter budgets and how. What services might be delivered better by the private sector or by charities – or not at all?

It is too early to go into departmental specifics when the economic outlook is so uncertain, say the two Eds. A plausible sketch of spending priorities is overdue, say their shadow cabinet critics. The Labour leadership has not found the right language to say that it strives for more effective ways to deploy taxpayers’ money because doing so risks owning up to past profligacy.

Nasty break-up

Those questions are not covered by Labour’s Five-Point Plan for Jobs and Growth, a menu of short-term stimulus measures, dogged repetition of which is enforced by the Balls camp. It is meant to signal that Labour has a handy remedy for Osborne’s economic mismanagement. In the mouths of the shadow cabinet, it tastes like political chloroform.

Balls, meanwhile, is no evangelist for Mili­band’s signature economic theme – “responsible capitalism”. The shadow chancellor is not by nature a moral philosopher. He stares down lofty abstraction with a cold, utilitarian eye trained in the Treasury. He won’t put his political muscle behind the Big Idea until he knows what it involves in practice. Miliband is reconciled to that wariness, although his aides don’t deny that it niggles.

When asked how the two men are getting on, both camps give mutually corroborating stories. They meet at least once a week to talk things through, sometimes twice; they have worked together for 20 years; they have a solid professional partnership. All true, but the duration of a relationship is no guarantee against a nasty break-up.

Such insurance comes only from singularity of purpose, which is in place only to the extent that both men are committed to winning the next election and are increasingly confident it can be done. Miliband’s leadership is safe but that is not enough. The missing component is strategic agreement on how Labour completes the journey from opposition to power; who is in the driving seat and who holds the map. Are they nearly there yet? No. Not even halfway.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.