Ed Balls is becoming a real liability to the Labour Party. His close association with Gordon Brown was one of the reasons why Ed Miliband didn’t appoint him Shadow Chancellor when he became leader three years ago. It’s often forgotten now that Alan Johnson was Ed’s first Shadow Chancellor.
Balls gloomy forecasts about the economy are now seen as over pessimistic. His hasty action, when Children’s Secretary, in sacking Haringey Social Services Director Sharon Shoesmith has led to a massive pay off this week. While that news was coming through, angry Labour MPs told the new Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh that Balls should stop messing about with the HS2 project. This is the issue that is set to be the first big test of the Miliband-Balls relationship.
I met Ed Balls in Manchester last week and tried to find out if the negative vibes he had been sending out about this vital rail project for the North was just about keeping costs down or the start of Labour’s disengagement with the project as a matter of principal. Balls told me it was the former, but then failed to reassure me that even if spending was kept within current figures, Labour’s support was guaranteed.
That’s been the problem in recent weeks. Balls has been sending out signals that its not just the summer cost increases that he’s worried about, but that he might like to use the money on other things if he gets into power.
Then there was the removal of Halewood MP Maria Eagle from her job as Shadow Transport Secretary. Labour sources tell me she was “incandescent” at not being told about Balls Brighton conference remarks about HS2.
The leaders of Leeds and Manchester councils received high praise from Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin for their support for HS2 at a conference in Manchester this week. When the city’s leader Sir Richard Leese joined the minister on the platform I asked the councillor for his assessment of what Ed Balls was up to.
Leese claimed that Mary Creagh was as keen on HS2 as Maria Eagle, although hours later Creagh was parroting Balls heavily caveated views to that meeting of Labour MPs. However the council leader went on to tell me that it would be “irresponsible” for his party to go into the next election opposed to HS2.
It has even been suggested that Balls has been getting some grief from his wife Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. They have neighbouring constituencies in West Yorkshire. HS2 is planned to run close to the community of Altofts in her Normanton. Pontefract and Castleford constituency and 100 people turned up at a meeting to discuss it with her. I mentioned this to Mr balls who said I’d been staying up too late reading the wrong articles.
Reports suggest Balls may not come off the fence till next spring or even closer to the General Election. This is irresponsible. Doug Oakervee, the outgoing chairman of HS2 Ltd confirmed to me at the Manchester conference that all party consensus was vital to potential investors.
Ed Miliband should tell Mr Balls to issue a statement backing HS2 if the current budget is kept to. If Balls resists he should be sacked. Labour has suffered before when its leader refused to deal with a troublesome Chancellor.
There are a number of potential successors. Two, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Shadow Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves were at a Downtown Leeds event recently and were very impressive by all accounts.