He may have been largely reading from notes. He may not have delivered the most dramatic or charismatic of speeches, to put it mildly. But Alan Johnson has by all accounts done his homework in the past week, and today showed that he is a competent shadow chancellor as well as an attractive politician, one more than capable of walking the tightrope between the positions over the deficit of Alistair Darling and Ed Balls.
He did say that “Ed Miliband and I are clear” that halving the deficit over four years is the correct policy. “Our policy remains to halve the deficit by 2013/14”. But he immediately added that tax must “do more of the work” to balance the budget. He emphasised that “public services matter”, calling for an approach that “values public services” not one that “relishes curtailing them”. He said the approach must be flexible enough to react to changing circumstances — reminded his City audience of the Irish reversion into recession. And he highlighted the “biggest difference” between the Labour and government positions as “the need to return to growth”, pointing out that “a rising dole queue means a bigger dole queue”.
Johnson produced a number of quotes from senior Liberal Democrats Vince Cable and Chris Huhne attacking “dogmatic” and ideological cuts, and reminded us that the IFS had “blown to pieces” the Government’s claim that the cuts are “progressive”. And overall, this was a further pitch for the middle classes — following that made by Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions last week — families in which, Johnson claimed, are taking the burden instead of the banks doing so.
Johnson was a controversial choice for shadow chancellor. No journalist — including this one — had heard it would happen (though I did guess at it in conversation with my colleague Mehdi in the days before the shadow reshuffle). This was as much because of Ed Miliband’s desire to keep the rivalrous Balls at arms-length as it was because he has been persuaded by supporters of his brother David over the Darling deficit reduction plan. It was, in other words, a very political decision. There is, however, no denying that Johnson is one of the biggest beasts in the Labour jungle right now. Today he subtly and soberly set out his position. It does indeed look like he will be an effective foil to George Osborne.