Ed Balls’s much-panned response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement has restarted the speculation about whether he will be replaced as shadow chancellor before the general election. Among commentators, Alistair Darling is again being touted as the ideal replacement. He’s done the job before and has indicated that he’d be open to a frontbench role once he’s finished saving the Union in September 2014.
The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne makes the standard case for Darling this morning: “He would bring unrivalled goodwill as the man credited with saving the British financial system in 2010 and then saving the union in 2014. The arrival of Alastair Darling just nine months before the general election would do wonders for Labour’s chances…because no British politician is held in as much respect as Mr Darling is today.”
But while the replacement of Balls with Darling would win plaudits from the commentariat (who revere him for his battles with Brown), it is less certain that it would improve Labour’s election prospects. Borrowing a line from Barack Obama, the Tories’ message at the next election will be “Britain is on the right track. Don’t give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place”, one that could persuade nervous voters to stick with the status quo.
In this regard, the appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis would be a political gift to the Tories. Osborne and Cameron make much of Balls’s Treasury past, but how many outside of Westminster know that he was City minister from 2006-07, or that he previously served as Brown’s special adviser? Voters are more likely to remember him for his time as Schools Secretary than his time as Brown’s brain.
Darling’s supporters will point out that he was the man who stopped the banks from going under, not the man responsible for the system of light-touch regulation that created the crisis. Others will note that he urged Brown to be more open about the cuts that Labour would have to make in an attempt to prevent the Tories from claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility for themselves. (Although it’s worth recalling that it was also Darling who vetoed Balls’s smart call for Labour to rule out a post-election VAT rise.)
But all of this detail will be lost on voters. To them, Darling is the man with “the weird eyebrows” (yes, as any pollster will tell you, voters are shallow) who was at the helm of the ship when it hit the iceberg. Are they really going to trust him with the economy again? Labour would undoubtedly benefit from the return of a politician as experienced and as shrewd as Darling but the shadow chancellorship is not the job for him.
I suspect that Ed Miliband, who has notably avoided returning “greybeards” to the frontbench in favour of promoting the “new generation”, recognises as much. Balls, who remains the best qualified figure for the job, is still more likely than not to be in his post come May 2015.