Ed Miliband, on the Andrew Marr programme today, when asked about speculation that his brother David might be brought back to Labour’s front line to serve as shadow chancellor, said “there is no vacancy” – which, of course, there isn’t. That is a stock formula for equivocation disguised as certainty. It sounds like a definitive backing of the incumbent without closing down any longer term options. There is no vacancy now. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be one. But Miliband also said that Ed Balls would “absolutely” be Shadow Chancellor going into the election campaign – a level of support that has hitherto been lacking.
The will-he-won’t-he sack Balls debate is a Westminster parlour game that falls in and out of fashion every few months. There has been a particularly intense bout of speculation recently (about which I blogged more extensively here). Miliband’s dilemma is that he wants to keep options open in case it becomes apparent that Labour’s lack of an effective economic message – or, rather, lack of a popular message-giver – is in danger of costing the election, but if he allows speculation to rumble on it overshadows the rest of his political project. Soap opera and pop psychology easily squeeze policy development and nuanced positioning out of the news. That is especially true when policy development is slow and positioning is cautious.
Miliband will have been particularly keen to kill off the Balls-related speculation as he is about to undertake a risky political manoeuvre that is not universally supported in the shadow cabinet and the party. He confirmed today that he has no intention of matching David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership – a gambit the Prime Minister is universally expected to make in a speech on 22nd January. As I reported in my column last week, Miliband intends to take what he and his allies see as the statesmanlike moral high ground, attacking Cameron for gambling with Britain’s vital alliances and destabilising the economy in the process purely to salvage his position in a frustrated and rebellious Tory party.
But there are those in the Labour party who worry that Miliband will not be able to sustain that position through an election campaign. He will constantly be asked why the Tories feel confident asking the people for their view on Europe while Labour appears to be running scared. Even those in the shadow cabinet who support Miliband’s current position recognise that the going will be tough. (Much depends on whether the Liberal Democrats acquiesce to the referendum pledge or back the Miliband line – Nick Clegg has the power to leave one of the Labour or Tory leaders looking painfully isolated on an issue of national significance, a rare bit of leverage the Lib Dem leader will no doubt be keen to prolong and exploit.)
Either way, Miliband does not want to spend the next few weeks, when he will have to answer plenty of difficult questions about his holding-pattern policies on everything from welfare to the economy to Europe, also answering questions about whether his shadow chancellor is a temporary feature or a permanent fixture.