by Kevin Meagher
We all know the tale. An ambitious chancellor plotting with cabinet colleagues to unseat a sitting prime minister who was responsible for an historic election victory.
Blair and Brown? It could equally apply to Sir Stafford Cripps’ attempts to oust Clement Attlee in the late 1940s. Labour history has a habit of repeating itself like that.
Right up to the present day, it seems. The Independent on Sunday’s John Rentoul has stirred a hornet’s nest by reporting supposed tensions at the top of the party. “Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been getting on particularly badly recently, although each has long found the other trying” he wrote the other day.
Clashing styles and disagreements over banking reform are cited by those following up the story.
A similar pattern (psychodrama?) has been played out down the decades. The relationship between Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, respectively leader and shadow chancellor in the late 50s, was such that Wilson even stood for the leadership against Gaitskell in 1960. That would be the equivalent of Ed Balls launching a bid to replace Ed Miliband right now. Let that then be the marker for talk of splits at the top today.
When he was eventually in the prime ministerial driving seat, Wilson fared little better. He didn’t get on with his chancellors, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healy. Mind you, as an expert economist himself, who served as Sir William Beveridge’s researcher when the great man was drawing up his famous report on the welfare state, it’s perhaps not surprising he thought he knew more than the occupants of Number 11. He did.
Likewise Gordon Brown clearly found it a tad difficult giving Alastair Darling full rein, unleashing “the forces of Hell” (in Darling’s memorable phrase) after disagreeing with his chancellor’s claim the recession in 2008 would be the deepest for 60 years. It didn’t help that there was a real difference between the two over the strategy for reducing the deficit.
To work properly, the roles of prime minister and chancellor have got to be a joint-enterprise. Denis Healey fared better under Jim Callaghan in the late 70s because, like Cameron and Osborne today, they were fused together implementing a cuts package that required total unanimity.
To be even-handed, Tory PMs and their chancellors fall out too. MacMillan sacked his chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, during the “night of the long knives” in 1962. Thatcher and Lawson, bosom buddies ideologically, fell out so seriously that it presaged her eventual fall. And of course John Major sacked Norman Lamont six months after Black Wednesday in September 1992, despite the fact Lamont had run his campaign to become Tory leader.
But these rows in the Labour family feel different; more serious, perhaps. A credible Labour chancellor or shadow chancellor is always going to be a party pooper for those who see public spending and the power of the state as the primary motor of Labour’s politics. They will always be the guardian of what is realeconomic, dashing colleagues’ hopes in the process. Shadow chancellor Gordon Brown didn’t succeed John Smith when he died unexpectedly in 1994 partly because Brown was the man giving the party the hard sell after 1992’s election defeat that there could be “no more tax and spend”.
So is taking a big stick to the banks – the ostensible cause of friction between Messrs Miliband and Balls – a sound move? Does it send a signal that Labour is not serious about a strategic part of the economy, or is the infection in our banking sector so serious and pervasive that only radical surgery will improve matters? If, indeed, the two Eds are not seeing eye-to-eye on everything, then at least it’s over something significant.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut