By Paul Goodman
I thought that Ed Miliband's first Shadow Cabinet was a fair play of a hand of cards that he hadn't chosen. But as I wrote at the time, it projected fear, whereas David Cameron's first Shadow Cabinet projected confidence. This was because of the Balls/Cooper problem. In short, the couple are now a huge force in the Labour Party – Cameron faced nothing like it in 2005.
Miliband was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. If he made either of them Shadow Chancellor, it would have signalled the open abandonment by Labour of fiscal responsibility. If he didn't, he'd be accused of not appointing one of his two best people to the post. (The Party's shortage of economically-literate MPs at its most senior level has been under-reported.)
The new Labour leader judged correctly that the first problem was worse than the second, and that to hand the Shadow Chancellorship to Balls in particular would raise the question: who's in charge of the Labour Party, and its economic policy – Miliband or the Shadow Chancellor? (And echo the Kinnock/Smith clashes of the early 1990s.)
It's therefore a lovely irony that the Shadow Chancellor he chose, Alan Johnson, has apparently led the first challenge to his authority – at the first meeting of his new Shadow Cabinet. Miliband campaigned on making a graduate tax Labour policy. Johnson was the Minister who piloted top-up fees through the Commons.
His view seems to be that he doesn't want to oppose higher fees in principle – thus executing a U-turn and, worse, be seen to do so. As he sees it, he'd rather leave that kind of thing to the Conservatives and, om particular, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Robinson picked the story up last night, but it's got a bit lost in the rest of the student finance reporting.
All this doesn't mean that Labour will support the Governent plan. The Party will cobble together some reason to oppose it – probably based on the size of the proposed fee increases rather than the principle. But it's no small thing for a leader openly to lose out in his first big Shadow Cabinet discussion. It sets a precedent.
Not a great start for Miliband as he prepares to face Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions today for the first time.