Labour leader Ed Miliband’s choice of Alan Johnson on 8 October as his shadow chancellor strikes Financial Director as… well, a wholly political move. His rivals for the role, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, both have a raft of relevant credentials to their names that mean we could at least hope they can add up and read a balance sheet. Johnson was a postie and a unionist before going into bigtime politics, including working for HM Treasury. Are both parties making a point of going for people outside the financial and economic mafia?
While the first two are dyed in the wool economic coneheads, Johnson’s USP is his popularity. But perhaps his lack of relevant experience is the reason he is there: after all, George Osborne had even less when he was made Conservative shadow chancellor in 2005. His first job, reportedly, was entering the names of dead people into a National Health Service database. He had wanted to become a journalist but ended up instead at the Conservative Party central office as a researcher, before becoming a special adviser to Douglas Hogg at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food during the BSE crisis. He later became a speechwriter for William Hague. Osborne was picked in 2005 by Michael Howard to become the party’s shadow chancellor – after Hague and, according to press speculation, David Cameron turned him down – giving him six years to train up and literally come out of the shadows for the Tory return to power.
What of Johnson? After starting his headline political career in 1997 with an appointment as parliamentary private secretary to the financial secretary to HM Treasury, the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) came calling with a position as minister for competitiveness; he was promoted in 2001 to DTI’s minister of state for employment relations and regions before being reshuffled out two years later to the newly-created post of minister of state for lifelong learning, higher and further education at the Department for Education and Skills. In 2004, that led to becoming secretary of state for work and pensions, secretary of state for the DTI in 2005, secretary of state for education and skills in 2006, head of the Department of Health in 2007, then secretary of state for the Home Office in 2009 – before being chucked back into the shadow equivalent after Labour’s defeat in the general election this May.
Let’s have a gander at Ed Balls’ CV. Before becoming an MP, he was a teaching fellow at Harvard’s department of economics, preceding that with a career as an economics leader writer for the Financial Times. He served as economic adviser to Gordon Brown as both shadow chancellor and from 1997 as chancellor, then spent six years as chief economic adviser to HM Treasury between 1999-2004 – capping it off by becoming a research fellow at the Smith Institute. Oh, and he has authored a raft of tomes on related topics. So white hot at economics, basically.
What about his lovely wife, Labour’s new shadow foreign secretary? Yvette Cooper is a PPE grad from Balliol College who also studied at Harvard on a Kennedy scholarship, before completing an MSc in economics at the London School of Economics and parachuting straight into a job as an economics researcher for Labour’s then-shadow chancellor, John Smith, in 1990. A stint Stateside as a policy wonk for the Democrats in Arkansas made a nice addition to her following years as a policy adviser to Harriet Harman, then deputy to shadow chancellor Brown; in 1995, after a period in research at the Centre for Economic Performance, she crossed over to journalism by becoming an economics correspondent for The Independent prior to her election to Westminster. And she was the first woman to be appointed chief secretary to HM Treasury, a role she took up in 2008 before being shunted by Brown in 2009 to secretary of state for work and pensions. So equally qualified.
And yet here we are with a chancellor who gave no hint of being keen on the country’s top economic job and a shadow chancellor whose CV is so scattergun it is hard to know what he brings beyond the warm fuzzies.
Taking leave of the realms of possibility, if I were Ed Miliband, I might have hired Balls and Cooper on a part-time basis for the role, to make the best of their experience, giving the business brief and the other public sector relationship job. Or what about hiring either one knowing full well that, due to their being married, you’d be benefitting from the experience and insight of the other? Imagine the kitchen table conversation. We could have had two heads on the job for the price of one. Isn’t value for money the thing these days?
But what do I know about the inner workings of the political world? Johnson, while having a reputation as a very nice man, has no relevant creds. Neither did Osborne. But it makes you think: if you can give probably the most important job in your cabinet to someone who leaves the populace scratching their heads, is it a Cassandra move – or a victory for idiocy?
This was published in October 2010 in our Extraordinary Items blog, which you can follow here
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