The Rest is Politics has some new competition
Not another one. Added to the roster of podcasts presented by two middle-aged blokes and catered to centrist dads is a new offering on economics presented by the former Conservative chancellor George Osborne and Ed Balls, his opposite number on the Labour benches from 2011-15. The as yet untitled show will likely replicate the success of The Rest Is Politics, in which Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart “disagree agreeably” about current affairs.
Such a format will suit Osborne and Balls. In their post-parliamentary careers, both have found time to sound off in print and on television about the failure of their successors and the disarray of a political atmosphere that rejected their ideas. Brexit. Corbyn. Now they will do hit these targets while hunched over a microphone together, for money. And so recent history pays a visit.
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What sermons can Osborne give? With each passing year, his record at the Treasury becomes more tarnished. Through the rear-view mirror Britain sees a lost decade, in which debt ballooned, living standards tanked and inequality widened. A fierce Remainer, Osborne will no doubt use his new podcast to crow about the damage that leaving the EU has done to Britain’s status and prosperity. But austerity was the midwife of Brexit and, even now, the ravages of his chancellorship are being pored over by the Covid-19 inquiry (he denies that austerity exhausted health and social care services, leaving them unprepared for crises).
Balls isn’t much better. As Shadow Chancellor he accepted Osborne’s framing of economic arguments and promised to make similar cuts — albeit with a kinder demeanour. This shut down legitimate opposition to austerity and kindled the energy for a Left-wing backlash, resulting in Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover in 2015. Remember too that it was the stubborn refusal of Corbyn’s leadership rivals Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham to oppose Osborne’s war on welfare that lost them the Labour leadership election in 2015. Their decision to abstain on the Tories’ substantial benefit cuts, where Corbyn voted firmly against, doomed their chances. Not entryism by Trotskyites: just political cowardice.
Like their analogues Campbell and Stewart, Osborne and Balls present themselves in their podcast as political opponents, or “frenemies”. They seem to believe that the flat yard of ideological turf they occupy is in fact a rolling, biodiverse meadow. It is not. There is a fencepost at one end marked “opinions found in the comment pages of the Times” and one at the other marked “opinions found in the comment pages of the Observer”.
They will not — and cannot — stray beyond these. All else is extremism, lunacy, and confusion. Given this, it is odd that their podcast promises to focus on “economic ideas”, an area in which both are hardly a fount of imagination. Don’t waste your time — these men of the past have little to say about the future.