I have to admit that when I first found out that Alan Johnson had been chosen by Ed Miliband as his Shadow Chancellor, I was more than a little disappointed. I had voted for Ed because he seemed like a guy who would be bold, and nothing could have been bolder than appointing Yvette Cooper as the first female shadow Chancellor.
On reflection, however, I think I may have been a little unfair. His choice, it seems to me, displays not just tactical cleverness but also strategic acumen. Alan Johnson is a popular guy, not just in the party but also among the electorate, and appointing him sends a clear signal that Ed Miliband is determined to deal, first and foremost, with the inevitable Tory attempt to brand him as ‘Red Ed’. Ed Balls, even Yvette Cooper, his wife, would have been grist to that particular mill given Balls’ opposition to Alistair Darling’s slower deficit reduction plan, never mind the Chancellor’s (I happen to think Balls is right, but there you go). Johnson, a ‘Blairite’ in the political journalist’s lexicon, confronts the charge head-on and neutralizes it.
Moreover, the new leader has displayed – quickly – that he is not predictable. The surprising choice has been read by the BBC’s Nick Robinson as a sign of his weakness within the party, but it could equally be the case that Miliband possesses the kind of deft political footwork that will keep his opponents guessing. When confronting a political media keen on pinning him down, a quixotic temperament augmented by sober judgment could prove to be real political asset.
More substantively, it seems clear that Miliband is not yet prepared to nail his colours to the Balls mast. He is playing a wait-and-see approach to the economy, and Darling’s deficit reduction plan is a good ‘starting point’ for such an approach. It is a clever piece of positioning because a ‘starting point’ implies that the text of the future is yet to be written; the policy can be rewritten as circumstances change.
At the moment, the economy is growing, and the public is still broadly – if tentatively – supportive of cutting the deficit quickly, mainly because of an instinctive comparison between personal and national debt that the Tories are playing for all they’re worth (notwithstanding its economic illiteracy), and partly because it hasn’t yet truly felt the effects. People are worried, anxious and restless but not yet ready to endorse a complete change of direction.
In such circumstances, adopting the Balls position on the deficit could be a dangerous hostage to fortune – everything would be staked on the economy going into a double-dip recession that has not yet happened. Right now the signs – both economic and political – are mixed and unclear. Better to wait and see which way things go, and for that you need a safe pair of (well-liked and experienced) hands, and a ‘starting point’.
If the economy does tip back into recession, he can then turn to Balls and unleash him – and he (or his wife) would be the right man (or woman) to offer an alternative economics at the moment when the public would be most likely to welcome one. In fact, I would be surprised if a conversation to this effect had not already taken place.