Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's not Brown, it's Balls!

Ed Balls first came to our attention in 1994 when Michael Heseltine attempted to ridicule Gordon Brown by exploiting the surname of his young advisor. After reading out some Brownite ponderings about neoclassical endogenous growth theory or suchlike (jargon of the kind Tories are loathe to use, since trained economists are thin on the ground in the party) Heseltine proudly concluded 'it wasn't Brown's, it was Balls'.

Well, that's what passed for humour amongst Tory grandees in the 1990s.

So what does Ed's elevation to George Osborne's nemesis really mean? The upside is that one would expect Balls to wipe the floor with Osborne in the Commons, all else equal. The downside of course is that Balls is associated with Gordon Brown and his policy errors in a way no other Labour politician - and certainly not the other Ed - could ever be. Will this matter?

The Tories will clearly seek exploit Balls' record. Their opening line is that Balls is a 'deficit enthusiast' who was responsible for the entire edifice of economic governance that came crashing down in 2007-8. And they are right, at least about the second bit. But that doesn't mean that Balls cannot prove an effective Shadow Chancellor.

For a start, I would doubt that most members of the public had any idea of who Balls is and what jobs he has done before this week. Do voters really care that Balls drew up the framework for the tripartite system of regulatory oversight in 1997-8? Of course they don't. David Cameron was Norman Lamont's right-hand man at the Treasury on Black Wednesday, Britain's last-but-one economic meltdown in 1992, and nobody ever mentioned it during his march to power. I would guess voters are rather more interested in the government being held to account than in demonizing anyone who worked for Gordon Brown. How will the 'deficit enthusiast' line play in 4 years time if unemployment is still 2.5 million and living standards have eroded?

If Ed has any sense, he will be trawling the archives for quotes circa 2005 by Cameron, Osborne and - for that matter - Clegg complaining about Labour's propensity for regulation and scrambling over each other to offer higher public spending into the future. To any accusations of blame he should simply shout back that Conservative policies would have freed the bankers to lose even more money. In six months time, that Conservative line of attack will be worn out, and Balls can go for them on the shambolic and inequitable nature of the cuts.

In any case, the starting point is that Balls and Osborne are already level pegging in the polls on who would make the best Chancellor, and Labour still have a 5 point lead in voting intentions. Interesting times.