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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