Saturday, February 23, 2013
At the end of last week’s column, on the back of an opinion poll showing the party 11 points clear of the Tories, I suggested that the next general election in 2015 was beginning to look like it might be Labour’s to lose.
Premature? Well probably. But there seems to be a growing view in political circles – not least on the Tory backbenches - that Labour is on course to become, at worst, the largest single party in another hung Parliament.
At the same time, however, there remains a strong awareness that despite favourable poll ratings and the growing unpopularity of the Coalition, the party still has one huge Achilles Heel: the economic record of the last Labour government.
And the man who, more than any other, personifies this is the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls – Gordon Brown’s chief economic adviser for most of his time at the Treasury and his closest political ally once he got to Number 10.
In my political preview of 2013, published on the last Saturday of 2012, I predicted that Labour leader Ed Miliband might eventually be obliged to resolve this difficulty by relieving Mr Balls of his responsibilities.
So it came as no huge surprise, to me at any rate, to see this view being repeated by no less a figure than Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and the pre-eminent historian of the Blair-Brown years.
“As somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword,” he told Mr Balls in a New Statesman article this week.
“Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand… Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. “
If the Godfather allusion seems unnecessarily brutal, Seldon at least went on to hold out the prospect that Mr Balls could one day return to the front bench as a “redeemed and respected figure.”
He even went so far as to say that he might yet succeed to the party leadership one day, predicting that the public will eventually tire of the trend towards young leaders.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Tories to start leaping to the defence of the man they believe is their greatest electoral asset.
One prominent Conservative blogger praised his “good political brain” and grasp of economics, and suggested that, far from being a drain on Ed Miliband’s leadership, he acts as a useful lightning conductor for him.
The irony of all this is that Mr Balls has, broadly speaking, been proved right in his attack on the government’s economic policy since 2010, namely that it has cut too far, too fast and in so doing snuffed out an incipient recovery.
With growth still sluggish, it is hard to gainsay the central thrust of his argument that the Coalition needs a ‘Plan B’ in order to get the economy moving again.
But whereas people may agree with Mr Balls’ analysis of the problem, this does not mean they necessarily agree with his solutions.
And Mr Balls’ real difficulty is that, rightly or wrongly, many voters assume his much-vaunted Plan B would be no more than a return to the policies that got the country into such a mess in the first place.
One of the most successful and oft-used Tory slogans of all time is the one originally coined by Harold Macmillan’s government at the 1959 election: “Life’s better with the Conservatives – don’t let Labour ruin it.”
It was used again to good effect in the last week of the 1987 campaign after the Tories’ “wobbly Thursday,” and variants such as “Britain is booming – don’t let Labour blow it” have resurfaced from time to time.
So long as Ed Balls remains in the shadow Treasury brief, the Tories won’t need Saatchi and Saatchi to devise their next election slogan for them.
It will be quite straightforward: “Britain is on the way back. Don’t let Labour Balls it up.”