There’s trouble at the top of both the UK’s main political parties, according to the latest Guardian/ICM poll.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has become slightly more popular than the Labour leader Ed Miliband, allowing the newspaper to stoke fears of a new power battle at the top, mirroring the problems of the Blair/Brown rivalry.
But the Conservatives are no better off, after George Osborne was singled out as the weakest member of the Coalition cabinet and the one most people wanted moved in the much-anticipated autumn reshuffle.
The Guardian article asks you to believe that Balls and his shadow treasury team have become hard work, demanding that no commitments can be made on anything that has spending implications without clearing it with them first. He is said to be demanding that shadow ministers should just keep repeating his five pledges for growth.
I think this is media-manufactured mischief.
My instinct tells me it is an attempt to continue a narrative that has been created around Ed Balls, that he was a key supporter of Gordon Brown against Tony Blair, while Brown was preparing to take over as Labour leader and Prime Minister, a few years ago – by suggesting that he remains a disruptive influence today.
This would be invaluable to supporters of the Conservative Party, which is losing support rapidly for reasons I will tackle shortly.
But I think it is a false assumption. We’ve all moved on a long way from the time when Mr Miliband parroted the same answer, no less than six times, to a series of questions from a television interviewer. That made him – and Labour – look silly and Mr Balls would be a fool to encourage any repeat of that situation now. And he’s nobody’s fool.
The Blair/Brown rivalry was played out while Labour was in power; today that party is in opposition and the greater priority by far must be the removal of the Conservatives from government. All other considerations should be secondary to the people at the top of the party. If Ed Balls is guilty of the kind of posturing suggested by the newspaper, he needs to suck it in, get behind his leader, and show – by example – that Labour is united.
The problems within the Conservative leadership are far more serious.
I think, as a nation, we are more or less agreed that George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer has been a disaster.
His spending review in late 2010 stalled the economy. Growth flatlined for a period, then the UK fell into double-dip recession, with GDP now less than it was when Labour left office.
His budget in March this year is now generally considered the most ridiculous travesty in living memory, featuring plans to give a tax break to the richest in society – the now infamous cut in the top rate of tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent – which would be supported by a range of hare-brained schemes including taxing static caravans and heated pasties.
And it is now accepted that the Coalition is unlikely to reach its two main economic goals – the reason the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together to form a government in the first place – before the next election in 2015, according to the Tories’ own Centre for Policy Studies thinktank. This is due to the failure of Mr Osborne’s fiscal policy.
The coalition had already given up hope of getting rid of the structural deficit by 2015 and the chance of ensuring that public-sector debt is falling by the time of the next election is now slim, the organisation has stated.
The Guardian/ICM poll says 39 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 want Osborne moved to a different cabinet role, if not sacked outright. Asked if Osborne is doing a bad job, agreement goes up to 44 per cent.
But it seems Mr Cameron might keep Osborne, firstly because the chancellor is his closest cabinet ally – his own position is stronger if Osborne remains in place; and secondly, because he believes changing chancellor midway through a Parliament indicates weakness to the country – and, in particular, the markets.
Mr Osborne might be the most prominent problem for the Tories, but he isn’t the only one. There have been calls for the sacking of Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary who brought privatisation into the NHS despite Mr Cameron’s claim – on Tory election posters – that he would not harm the health service. Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt are also in the firing line.
Transport secretary Justine Greening has threatened to resign over plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport, and internecine squabbles have broken out, with Nadine Dorries attacking fellow Conservative Louise Mensch, who is quitting as an MP, for being “void of principle”.
So which party is in the most disarray?
Call me a loony leftie Labourite if you want, but on the evidence above, I don’t think there can be any doubt. Despite attempts to manufacture disunity in Her Majesty’s Opposition, it is the Conservative Party – and therefore the government – that is falling apart.
Or am I misreading the situation?