Matthew Dancona

Following a dividing line to oblivion

Following a dividing line to oblivion
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Following on from Fraser and Pete’s earlier posts: the spat in today’s Guardian between Ed Balls and Jackie Ashley is fascinating and relevant to George Osborne’s milestone article in The Times. Balls remains an unabashed proponent of what I would call ur-Brownism: emphasise “dividing lines” that distinguish Labour from Tories at every available opportunity, especially when they concern public spending. Brown has always believed that elections are won by the party that persuades the electorate that it is (a) economically competent and (b) less inclined to cut public spending. Hence the twin prongs of Gordon’s rhetoric over the years: “no return to Tory boom and bust” and “Labour investment versus Tory cuts”.

In his article, Balls scorns those in whose own party who believe that this approach has outlived its usefulness and savages the media for failing to subject Cameron’s Tories to proper scrutiny. He then challenges Michael Gove on a number of points, seeking to prove that, beneath the Cameroon shininess, the Tory Party remains a gang of evil dismantlers of the state.

The trouble with this is that Balls is posing the wrong question. Everyone knows that public spending is going to have to be reined in, thanks to the nation’s insane indebtedness, and, as Coffee House and Fraser’s magazine pieces have constantly pointed out, that reality holds good for Labour as well as the Tories. Alistair Darling admitted as much in his FT interview on Friday. Only the PM and Balls cling to the nonsense of Labour bounty versus wicked Tory parsimony.

Jackie Ashley makes the crucial point: nobody will buy this, from Balls or anyone else, and so the election will become an argument about character (why is Labour lying?) rather than policy (who would govern the country best?). I doubt the Schools Secretary, denied the top job at the Treasury in the reshuffle, will pay her much heed. His Guardian piece, cosmetically a call for unity, is also his own statement of intent for the post-Brown world. David Miliband set out some of his stall in a Guardian interview on Saturday. Now his deadliest rival has thrown his hat in the ring. Brown still sits on the throne, but he is what the French call a roi fainéant: king in name only. The race for the succession is already on.