I've written before that the instinct of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, as the next election approaches, will be to close down the gap between Labour and the Government on spending. If they do, they will be assailed by the unions and their left, and asked the question which John Rentoul raises this morning: what's the point of voting Labour, then? But if they don't, they will open themselves to a 1992 "double whammy"-style assault from David Cameron (who helped to plan John Major's triumphant assault on Neil Kinnock that year). This would be spearheaded by another question, asked not so much by Labour's base as by floating voters, namely: which taxes will you raise, then?
CCHQ is gleefully pointing out the weaknesses and contradictions of the two Eds' position – over borrowing for capital spending, for example. But my instinct is that Rentoul is right, and that the closer the election comes, the more tightly the two men will try to screw the lid down on Labour spending pledges. (He has also noted correctly that the conventional wisdom is wrong, and that the worse shape the economy is in, the more difficult is will be for Labour to pledge to borrow more.) Balls has form in closing down Labour weaknesses over spending: after all, he was at Gordon Brown's right hand when New Labour swept the electoral board in 1997, promising as they did so to keep to Conservative spending plans.
No, the main political problem for Labour – which Grant Shapps has duly latched on to – isn't so much the content what Miliband and Balls say as their credibility. Balls is inextricably linked to Gordon Brown's debt and deficits. And Miliband is trying to toughen Labour's position up three years into this Parliament. Very simply, voters form impressions of new leaders early, a lesson that Tony Blair and David Cameron both grasped from the start. Miliband is thus moving late and slowly – as he has done on both immigration and welfare. He cannot take a position both as a left-wing equivalent of Margaret Thatcher, challenging a centrist consensus, and at the same time establish himself as Mr Fiscal Responsibility.