24 February 2013

Is Ed Balls a lucky general?

Was it Eisenhower or Napoleon who saw advantages in generals who were lucky rather than clever? Dr Anthony Seldon, being an historian and Master of Wellington College (named after Napoleon’s nemesis), should know. Seldon (left) must be a man of exceptional energy and ability. As well as holding a job at the top of private education, he is an active modern historian (co-founder of Institute of Contemporary British History with Peter Hennessy) and the author of studies of the administrations of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. No doubt during his toils he has encountered many of the current shadow front bench, so his open letter to Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, published in the New Statesman on 21 February, For the good of himself, his family and the party, it’s time for Ed Balls to fall on his sword, has to be taken notice of. Seldon’s message to Balls is that:
… quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself.
His motives in producing this epistle are a mystery to us peasants outside the Westminster Village, and probably many inside. But it may contain some clues as to what could be going on, for example:

Possibility 1: Seldon is acting in support, unsolicited or otherwise, of those who want rid of Balls – perhaps they see him as a stumbling block in forming a Labour/Lib Dem coalition:
Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. … he doesn’t need you … you stop Ed breathing fresh air. … You say you like David Miliband, but his followers are not doing well under Ed, are they? The party would be much stronger with David back in the frame. So, too, would it with Alistair Darling returning to the front bench. In the event of a hung parliament, Labour would stand a better chance of putting together a workable coalition with the Lib Dems without you. … Others, including Ed Miliband, share responsibility for the Brown errors: you will earn praise for taking the hit.
Such persons may have calculated that with a maximum of just over two years to the next election, Balls has to go now or it’s too late.

Possibility 2: It’s not really about politics: primarily Seldon wants to make an impression on the current or potential parents whose fee-paying is fundamental to his College’s existence. Such people by now may be alarmed at the prospect of Ed Balls as the next (or next but one) Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably for the benefit of the same audience, less than a month ago Seldon was reported in the media complaining about bias (eg in the Daily Telegraph):
Dr Seldon claimed there are 62 pupils at Wellington bright enough to get an Oxbridge interview this year, but said he only expects 20 offers of places to come in. He said: "From our perspective it looks as if some public school students are being discriminated against at the final hurdle. It's painful because we are seeing some excellent candidates who would go on to get firsts who are not getting offers, about 10 this year.
Given that in 2012 Wellington College was ranked 76th in independent school A-level results (62.2% gainingA*/A or equivalent; 1st Wycombe Abbey 92.8%) are 20 Oxbridge places so few?

The boarding fees at Wellington are £31500 pa and one of the experiences they secure is a course on happiness and well being, one of Seldon’s innovations. Never having had the benefit of such education, but being all in favour of “build[ing] strong and positive relationships with others”, I can offer one piece of advice for free: avoid commenting on the dynamics of another couple’s relationship and on how they should bring up their children. But I’m not sure Seldon would agree:
Yvette would not say it to you but, like many women working in the same organisation as their husband, she would be freer to think and act without you in her hair. You would have more time, too, for your three children. As a headmaster, I know how hard it is for children who have just one parent in the public eye. Having two is harder still and your family would only benefit with you being more present and less preoccupied.
(Yvette Cooper, ie Mrs Balls, is shadow home secretary.)

Possibility 3: It was a gross error of judgement by Seldon, clever man though he is. This seems to be borne out by the sceptical responses to Seldon’s advice from both left and right, summarised in the New Statesman subsequently. To me it seems bizarre to propose that, with a Labour lead in double figures and a good chance of winning an election in 2015, any member of the shadow front bench should walk away from frontline politics. Particularly if they are 46 and would be 50 at the proposed date of return, at which point their colleagues/rivals would have been in office a couple of years. And:
What might you do during your long sabbatical? … What about a biography of Brown? Not Gordon, nor your friend Nick, but George: you would learn much more about how factionalism damaged Labour in the 1960s. … You could even study for an MBA and learn, unlike many others who become ministers, how to run large organisations.
So you can guess what Seldon has among his four advanced qualifications.

As for its impact on Balls, so far the open letter doesn’t seem to have gained any traction at all. And it probably won’t.  Timing being everything and Balls being a lucky general, within 48 hours of the Seldon article appearing, Moody’s had announced that they were downgrading the UK’s credit rating from AAA to Aa1 because of the UK’s poor growth prospects. It’s against this background that the real Chancellor will be delivering his budget next month.

But there remains:

Possibility 4: Seldon knows something that most of us don’t, but if we did would put a completely different slant on his advice.

Footnote: It wasn’t until writing this post that I discovered that Seldon’s father was Arthur Seldon, the right-wing economist and joint founder president, with Ralph Harris, of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Also Seldon, like Mr and Mrs Balls, both Milibands, David Cameron and so many other members of the British political class, is an Oxford PPE graduate.

UPDATE 28 February

The Seldon letter was re-opened yesterday at the first PMQs after the Moody’s downrating of UK debt. Ed Miliband’s questions were directed at the economy, eventually being replied to with:
The Prime Minister: … let us look at the right hon. Gentleman’s policy. Let us examine the fact that the New Statesman, the in-house magazine of the Labour party, says that his “critique of the government’s…strategy may never win back public trust”,  
“proposals for the economy will never convince”,
 and his  
“credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches”. That is not Conservative central office saying it, but the New Statesman.  
Edward Miliband: With the greatest respect to the New Statesman, the Prime Minister is scraping the barrel by quoting that. All we have heard today … is a Prime Minister who refuses to accept that he has failed on the central test he set himself. He has failed to meet that first test. It is not just our credit rating that has been downgraded. We have a downgraded Government, a downgraded Chancellor and a downgraded Prime Minister.  
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says that the New Statesman is scraping the barrel, but it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership. In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and the right hon. Gentleman is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.
The PM was quoting from a passage of the “open letter” directed at Ed Balls:
Economic credibility would be more readily restored with your departure. Your critique of the government’s austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince. Your credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.
On February 28 Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph argued that Ed Miliband should sack Ed Balls - and as brutally as possible. He thought the most telling [political] event of the week was:
… the dreadful showing by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, in the House of Commons on Monday, when George Osborne was forced to come and explain himself following Britain’s loss of its AAA status with the rating agency Moody’s. In theory this should have been an open goal for Mr Balls.  Yet when the session ended an hour later, Mr Osborne had got away with it and Mr Balls was out of sorts. The truth is that Mr Balls isn’t any good as shadow chancellor. This is an open secret in the Labour Party (where discussions about his successor are ongoing) ..   
… as shadow chancellor, he is a failure. Monday showed that he cannot damage George Osborne even if confronted with an easy target. There are various reasons for this, one of which is Mr Balls’s total identification with the economics and politics of the Gordon Brown era. The basic reason why Britain is in such an economic mess is because Mr Brown, advised by Mr Balls, spent too much and fuelled a boom. We are coping with the resulting bust. There is no getting away from this.
Some people might think this is letting the bankers off rather lightly!
… Mr Balls has not seriously challenged the basic Coalition strategy. There has been no great collision of ideas. As a result he has nothing interesting to say, which is probably the reason he compensates with bombastic but ultimately meaningless Commons performances. The former chancellor Alistair Darling and David Miliband (who appears to have at last got over his long sulk at losing the Labour leadership to his younger brother) are being aired as replacements. Either would be an improvement, as would Yvette Cooper, Mr Balls’s wife.  
Last weekend Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, wrote an article in which he urged Mr Balls to go one step further, retire from politics, and take up some other occupation. I hope that Mr Balls does not do that. He has much too much to offer, and there are all kinds of front-bench jobs at which he can excel.  
Mr Balls is a highly intelligent and self-aware man, and I am sure that he realises that he is in trouble. If he really wants Labour to win the next election, he can do Ed Miliband one last favour. He should not merely offer his resignation. Rather, he should allow his party leader to sack him as brutally as possible. By doing in his former mentor in this way, Mr Miliband would look strong and ruthless. Favourable comparisons would be made with Tony Blair, who always lacked the courage to sack Gordon Brown. And questions would be asked about why David Cameron has been unable to follow suit.
How Miliband could “sack” Balls “as brutally as possible” but have him in a “front-bench job[s] at which he can excel” is far from clear – that’s just a reshuffle isn’t it?

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