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Friday, 21 January 2011

Two Ed's better than one?

So, Ed Balls is the new Shadow Chancellor. There appear to be rather sad personal reasons behind Alan Johnson's hasty departure. But whatever the reasons, it allows Ed Miliband the opportunity for a bit of a re-launch and a bit of a re-think. He desperately needs one. His first hundred days, always scrutinised by the pundits, were uninspiring and very forgettable. The media is labelling Ed as a man with nothing to say - there were brutally funny cartoons of Ed surrounded by students waving placards. Tellingly, Ed's placard was blank.

And this has been the mark of Ed's first few month's as leader. Labour has struggled to define itself as the coalition has charged around with reforms on welfare, health and education and the sheer scale of the cuts outlined in October's comprehensive spending review. But it really is about the economy, stupid, and Labour's position on the deficit and on spending cuts was fatally weakened by Alan Johnson's nice guy approach - he was a nice guy, but failed to land any blows on George Osborne because it was clear he didn't really do the numbers.

Ed Balls will surely be different. He has one of the most formidable ecomomic brains in Parliament today. For too long in this Parliament, Labour has struggled to be a credible and effective opposition. Balls, like Brown in his wait for the Premiership, has waited a long time for this. He wanted to be Chancellor of course, and lost out to Alistair Darling. He wanted to be Shadow Chancellor and was disappointed to be appointed Shadow Home Secretary. Whilst Ed Miliband has placed Balls in his own office and under his own media team, we can expect Ed Balls to bring much greater clarity to Labour's attacks on the economy. Ed Miliband has a chance to beef up his Opposition with Ball's talent deployed where it can make a real difference.

The first task will be to figure out a strategy to blunt Tory attacks that Labour are "deficit deniers". Balls and Miliband will need to craft a more credible line than they have so far where Labour went wrong on the economy. Of course, the bank bail-outs triggered a huge rise in borrowing. But Labour will need to be more honest about the role it played in the banks getting to that stage in the first place. When it comes to the economy, it's all about trust - and the Tory line that Labour are in denial is one that is sticking and needs to be addressed.

A further task will be for Labour to ensure that two Ed's really are better than one. There is great potential here for Ed Balls to undermine and overshadow Ed Miliband who has, thus far, been uninspiring. Ed Balls ran a superb leadership campaign over the summer - he has softened his image and shows great capacity for re-inventing himself. He reminds me of Michael Portillo, the Thatcherite villain of the left, who came back as Shadow Chancellor under William Hague's leadership and took the party in a bold direction, reversing - for example - Tory opposition to the minimum wage. Ed Balls has the capacity to make the same kind of break with Labour's past and, in doing so, escape the Brownite villain status that still hangs round his neck.

He's been waiting for this for so long - you have to expect Ed Balls to make the most of his chance. And if he does well and Miliband continues to falter, he may just have an eye on the leadership too.

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