Johnson and Coulson

Two big resignations this week – Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson. What will be the impact? The immediate one will be virtually nil. People watching the Westminister bubble tend to consistently over-estimate the impact of comparatively minor gaffes and scandals, the public’s awareness of the stories or even the existance of the people involved. The important impacts are the long term ones.

Taking Coulson first, it is unlikely to change people’s perception of the government, Cameron or the coalition. It fact, it really won’t have an impact on public opinion at all – most people making a fuss will be those with a negative opinion to start with. However, it does rob David Cameron of a close and valued advisor (and indeed, the figure in his inner circle with the least privileged, most “normal” background) – if there is an long term impact from Coulson’s resignation, this will be it.

Secondly there is Alan Johnson – here there are more obvious impacts on public opinion. The circumstances around Johnson’s resignation itself are not – it seems Johnson himself is blameless, and even if he weren’t, it would again be tomorrow’s chip paper with four years to go. Rather the question is what Labour have lost in the departure of Alan Johnson, and what the prospects are for Ed Balls.

Johnson had made some gaffes in recent days but these wouldn’t necessarily have been noticed by ordinary people. Johnson was seen comparatively positively by the public – in December 34% saw him as an asset for the Labour party and only 20% a liability, giving him a better rating than any other senior Labour figure. Despite being seen by political commentators as perhaps not up to the role, the public didn’t have him far behind George Osborne as best Chancellor (25% Osborne, 21% Johnson) – though that may be just as much about poor perceptions of Osborne. In short, Alan Johnson is a loss for Labour.

That brings us to Ed Balls. Here things are more balanced. The positives are quite clear – Ed Balls is a combatitive and capable politician with a solid economic background, who will no doubt do a very good job in attacking George Osborne and the government’s economic policy. The downsides are trickier – polls suggest Balls is not seen very positively. 28% of people see him as an asset for Labour, but 32% see him as a liability, significantly more than the man he replaces (though not the man he is going to shadow, who the same figures suggest is seen by the public as a comparatively weak link on the Tory front bench)

More significantly though will be the impact upon how Labour are seen and upon their future strategy. Balls is seen as extremely close to Gordon Brown, and as being opposed to the need for cuts (or at least, this is how the media currently see him and how the Conservatives will attempt to paint him)

On New Year’s Eve I wrote a round up piece on the challenges facing Labour – essentially looking at the underlying weaknesses that Miliband needed to take the opportunity of a poll lead to address. I won’t repeat too much of it here, but will just pick out a couple of poll findings I cited back then, taken from a poll in September 2010, which reflect the sort of image problems facing Labour. Back then 69% agreed that “Labour need to make major changes to their policies and beliefs to be fit for government again”, 60% agreed “Labour still haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the British economy”, 47% thought that “If Labour returned to government they would put the country into even more debt”.

We asked it again earlier this month to see if Ed Miliband had made any difference to negative perceptions of the Labour party yet. The answer is not much – 65% still think Labour need to make major changes to their policies (including 45% of Labour voters!), 58% still think Labour haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the economy, 47% still think they would put the country back into debt were they to return to government.

Labour have a good lead in the polls and my expectation is that it will get bigger in the coming months, Ed Miliband has the strategic choice of whether to gamble on the coalition remaining unpopular and just hammering away at the cuts and reaping the rewards of opposing them, or using the luxury of a poll lead to reposition Labour to a more opportune position should the economy improve and the cuts not be a disaster. Conservatives pleased with the appointment of Balls seem to be working on the assumption that the appointment of Ed Balls signifies Miliband is going down the first route, though we shall see.

184 Responses to “Johnson and Coulson”

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  1. I reckon the Coulson affair will slightly affect the Government…or at least re-enforce their poll position at 36!

  2. AW

    Nice analyisis.

    An angle you avoided (quite understandably) is the effect of ‘Coulson’ on how the Cons view DC.

    Of course, whether there is an effect this will have no (obvious) impact on VI.

    It will be interesting to see how joe public perception of EB moves over time.

  3. “Of course, whether there is an effect this will have no (obvious) impact on VI.”

    Gibberish…please ignore that sentence.

  4. My sense is that for the short-term Ed Balls will be a plus for Labour. People tend not to care too much about the views of the opposition spokesmen but pay more attention if they make the government embarrassed, knock them off their stride or highlight major holes in their policies (remember David Davies with various Home Secretaries, or Osborne with Darling).

    The key question is whether Balls can do this whilst at the same time putting together a coherent economic policy that gives a clear broadbrush alternative to “savage cuts now” (no oppposition EVER spells out in detail what they’ll do) but without sounding like “no cuts at all”.

    If he can also bring himself to put some distance between himself and Gordon Brown (as the other ex-Brownites have tried to do – e.g. E Milliband, Alexander), then at least in the public’s eyes they will be less inclined to associate Balls with Brown.

    I think the much more interesting longer-term question is what effect Balls will have on the inner-workings of the Shadow Cabinet. If he acts as a loose canon and Milliband gets in a position where he can’t move him he will have problems!

    Prediction – David Milliband to return as Shadow Chancellor in 18 months!

  5. Johnson leaving will have little effect, especially as his resignation is definitely not his fault and may elicit a little sympathy. He also wasn’t demonstrating much coherence with his brief and being a likeable chap may be fine but not if you’re in public charge of the party’s economic policy.

    Which dovetailes nicely with Balls’s arrival. He himself, I think correctly, said that the time until the election will be spent fighting the economic fight. His appointment may be seen as propitious by the Cons, since he is a polarising figure with a reputation … but I think that advantage will be short-lived, if at all.

    First, he lost the leadership election by a wide margin, and accepted the result. I will be surprised if he spends his time now sulking a la GB. (Shadow) Chancellor is actually his dream job. I think he’ll be happy there. He is also hungry for another Labour government, and fast, something that I don’t think Johnson really communicated.

    Second, Johnson was too lightweight. Balls will duff up Osborne every week. Osborne is already a weak-ish performer in the HoC, and he will struggle to keep his shrillness under control. Plus he hasn’t tamed that smirk.

    Third, whatever else you think of him, Balls is an intellectually gifted economist. The duffing up will be done as much by forensic dissecting of the coalition’s chosen path. He exposes Osborne’s lack of experience and qualifications for the post, and will highlight every flaw. His fondness for the US model of deficit ignoring (for now) may work if the economy slides and Osborne struggles to articulate a Plan B.

    Having said that … the big problem will be if Balls allows hubris to get in his way. There is a danger that he will forget that he came third in the leadership election and consider his post a beach-head for the bigger job if Labour’s numbers start to sag.

    Since this is a polling blog, I don’t see that these movements will have much effect on the dominant momentum. I think we should add Coulson into the equation, not because the public will start to think of DC as a ditherer, but because the No 10 messages will start to go awry, a bit like GB’s did in 2008 onwards. the absence of a competent communications director will show. The vacuum of speech, rather than a new message, is more likely to affect VI.

  6. when i heard that balls was getting the economy job, i thought “ahh, grearing up for an early election” but of course now that the millpede is ready for battle he won’t get one

  7. Excellent analysis Anthony.

  8. There is no doubt about the value placed upon Coulson by Cameron, and the warmth of their close working relationship.

    Paul Brown the ‘news grid’ supremo is to retire in March after nearly 14 years in No 10.

    It will be interesting to see who is lined up to provide a counterweight to (the unpopular in some quarters) Hilton.

    Johnson’s expirience, common sense, and genuine unselfish comradely manners will be a loss to the shadow cabinet.

    Balls is saying he has come round to the Darling approach (which he initially opposed) because the evidence shows it to have been a spectacular success – in contrast to Osborne’s strategy – (and he backs this thesis with a veritable battery of statistics).

  9. Anthony, I would tend to agree that neither of these resignations per se will have much impact on voting intention.
    Ed Balls promotion is significant , as you point out, and in any case, if only because of Johnson’s age, I would have anticipated this in a year or two anyway.
    I am sorry for Alan Johnson, but pleased about Ed Balls promotion to CoE.
    It will be interesting to follow.

    Sorry, I logged in and this went on wrong thread, don’t know why, so reposted.

  10. The economy is in fact, the argument Labour need to win to really turn the tide. Ed Balls is much better placed to do that than AJ IMO.

  11. Tark: Excellent post which I agree with.

  12. Some amusing postings on The Guardian site. I particularly like:

    Show your appreciation for Andy Coulson. Leave him a message of a support on your voicemail.

  13. There have been some who claim that it won’t be so good for the Tories if the economy makes a roaring recovery becaus it will shift the focus onto public services/spending, where Labour are traditionally/allegedly (delete according to your opinion) stronger.

    However, appointing the arch-economist Balls to the frontline indicates Ed Mili is firmly basing the fight on the Economy – perhaps a gamble that it will underperform?

  14. Pam F – I’d always thought that Alan Johnson was an interim Shadow Chancellor too, his grasp probably wasn’t good enough to instill confidence at a general election, but he was senior enough and experienced enough to hold the fort until one of Labour’s younger shadcab members was ready to take on the role (and on that basis, I though it was a sound choice by Miliband given that Alistair Darling wouldn’t stay).

    I had expected Johnson to bow out in a year or two… but not to be replaced by Balls.

  15. It just remains for me to have a moan about the questioning as usual, such as:
    ‘do you agree or disagree with’:

    ‘Labour need to make major changes to their policies and beliefs to be fit for government again’
    ‘Labour have seriously lost touch with ordinary working people’ and even worse
    ‘Labour these days are mainly a party for immigrants, benefit claimants and
    trade unions’

    These were the first asked. I appreciate one has to ask the same questions each time to get a comparison but really!.

    I suppose the Labour Party must be grateful the sample is just 2000 and not 20 million otherwise the chances of their recovery would be minimal.

    Dog Whistle? More like brow-beating from where I am looking.

    [Actually we randomised the order they were displayed to people, so they’ll all have seen the 5 more positive statements and the 5 negative ones jumbled up together – AW]

  16. Anthony

    Do you still think the Coulson effect on polls would be negligible if he ends up in jail?

  17. Very interesting Anthony.

    Assuming EB maxes out the potential for fear of cuts, and Labour go to a substantial lead in the Polls -lets say 15 to 20 points by mid/late 2012 .

    What are the historic precedents/ max reversal of a VI over the last three years of a Parliament ?

  18. Sunday and Mondays polls should make very interesting reading. I think the Coulson resignation will have the bigger affect on the polls. If Cameron had sacked him the impact would have been less I feel. My prediction is a slight move from Con to lab giving Tory 35 Labour 44 LibDem 10 on either Sunday or Monday.

    For once Clegg can look on and relax.

  19. @ Colin

    I think Labour were around 20% points up around mid-term in 1990 and the height of Thatcher’s unpopularity and then the lost the GE by about 6 points (from memory I’m afraid, someone correct me).

    But there were so many questions about the accuracy of polling around 1992 I don’t know how much weight we can put on this (I guess in pure polling terms, comparing like with like, the VI went from Lab +20 down to Con +1 on GE day – they just got the VI massively wrong).

  20. Colin,

    In the last seven elections on average 11% is overcome by the incumbent in the final 12months.

  21. The last three paragraphs of this analysis tend to rest upon three underlying but unspoken assumptions:

    1) That Ed Balls will be linked to Gordon Browns time in office ad infinitum

    2) That Balls and Miliband will revisit Blair and Browns psycho-trauma

    3) That Ed Miliband will be the Labour leader at the next election irrespective of whether his numbers improve.

    (1) and (2) are wrong IMO and in the case of (3) if his numbers and PMQ performance don’t improve Milliband won’t be the leader going into the next election. It will be Cooper or Burnham (with as deputy either Cruddas or Umana).

    On the headline of the piece: Johnson going will get Labour a tiny sympathy vote IMO = *Martyn no sign whatsoever of your confident predictions taken from the reliable Guido :-)

    The arrival of Balls will get Labour a boost over the medium term due to him being a far better performer (than both Al and George) who has disavowed his deficit denial and is prepared to embrace the Alan Johnson developing economic strategy.

    Coulson? If nothing but continued rumours occurs then no impact whatsoever. *BUT* if anything else transpires/ comes out then this will reflect badly upon Dave (and therefore the Conservatives) IMHO- small hit in polls.

    Only time will tell on Balls installation and Coulsons forced resignation.

    On the ‘comeback of the Conservatives’ circa 2014 (from their poll depths of 2011-2012) please can we all remember that we are in a two party scenario again for the first time since 1981 (and will remain so in all likelihood until the next GE).

    Under the current boundaries and electoral system: if the Conservatives hold steady at 36 (and Lib dems at their non YG post election average of 14) Labour need around 37% to get a majority; around 33.5 to be the biggest party and around 29 to deprive the Conservatives of a majority….

  22. Are there any other polls apart from Sundays YouGov?

  23. On the subject of Balls performance,he always seems to
    stutter whenever I have heard him speak.Perhaps I am
    mistaken though.

  24. Gary,

    A good chance of an Ipsos appearing as a gift in the Guardian…

    If that doesn’t appear I expect an ICM… but either way one of the two is sure to appear..

  25. RE: “two party scenario again for the first time since 1981″/ “
    ”average 11% turnaround” in final 12 months” (that old chestnut again…)

    The governing party clawback pre three party politics in the final 12 months for which we have figures (ipsos mori)

    1979 = MINUS eight (-8 i.e. negative clawback for the incumbent in 1979)

    I will try to find the ‘clawback’ (if any) for previous elections in the 70’s and 60’s- it will need a Butler election guide check!

    But IMO any analysis of incumbent clawback based on three party politics applied to the current parliament is totally flawed. We are in a fundamentally different context.

    What about the 2010 general election?

    **Governing Party turnaround 2009 – 2010**

    Governing Party vote in May 2010 election was 29%

    Nearest polls to one year earlier by each Polling company are:

    -YG May 8th 2009 was 27% = 2% net ‘clawback’
    -ICM May 17th 2009 was 28% = net clawback of 1%
    -Populous 10th May 2009 was 26% = net clawback 3%
    -Ipsos Mori April 19th 2009 was 28% = net clawback of 1%
    -Comres April 26th 2009 was 26% = net clawback 3%

    So for the General Election of 2010 we have a ‘net clawback’ figure across the five polling companies of a meagre **TWO** percentage points.

    Ergo- even under two party politics the assertion that there is “11% clawback” fails totally when two conditions prevail (1) where the government had become deeply unpopular over several years and- crucially- (2) is faced with an effective opposition (incidentally the case in 1979 as well).

    The Blair turnarounds of 2001 and 2005 are not instructive in this as Conservatives were a useless opposition during those years pre Cameron and Blair’s honeymoon was largely still intact at 2001 GE (a useful contrast with the current government).

  26. If we were watching a chess match (OK so these resignations were not connected moves, but stay with me) the Johnson and Coulson departures would be seen as a forced exchange that generally strengthens Reds position.

    I think Ball’s backstory is of limited value to the Tories. We mostly accept that shouting taunts at people in the HoC doesn’t shift many votes, but Balls is much better equipped to expose any weaknesses in Tory economic plans. If the economy responds well to the treatment, the Tories have some moderately useful ammunition against Balls, but if it does badly – lets face it – will voters in 2015 really care about what happened ten years earlier as opposed to what’s going to happen next week?

    Neither side wished to lose their man, but while the Tories were trying to pin Johnsons departure on Ed’s poor decision making, as the reasons for his departure have emerged that duck has died a swift death. Coulson, on the other hand, is absolutely a central hit on Cameron’s judgement.

    As something earlier said, many Tories told him at the time his appointment was a poor move, and the enforced departure will give internal party critics much succour and undermine Cameron’s authority. I doubt it will shift many poll responses, although there has to be a chance that Coulson will end up in serious legal bother, and in that event the links with Cameron would be regurgitated ad nasuem I’m sure.

    There you go. A whole post on Coulson being forced out, and I never once said ‘I told you so’.

  27. @ Rob Sheffield
    please can we all remember that we are in a two party scenario again for the first time since 1981 (and will remain so in all likelihood until the next GE).
    Not if you replace Ed Miliband with another New Labour candidate, you won’t. ;)

  28. Adrian B & Eoin

    Thanks both.

  29. Anthony – a couple of technical points about the site.

    I really like the revamp, but….
    is there any chance of resurrecting the facility that allows you to view all responses within a thread? It helps tracking back through long threads if you don’t have to keep switching pages.

    I also miss the little display that showed the most recent posts on live threads. That was very helpful if you were actively involved in a discussion and keeping an eye out for responses.

    I was also highly entertained on the last thread when someone posted the immortal lines ‘Without being too partisan…’ with the rest of the comment snipped. We’ve all tried it, but your on the ball.

    I do have to give you a ticking off though. In recent days you have posted the words ‘cr*p’ and ‘b*ll*cks’ (twice), obviously without moderation.

    When I tried to cut and paste one of your ‘b*ll*cks’ [ok folks – you know what I mean] I was moderated.

    Sauce for the goose and all that.

  30. IIRC there’s only ever been one opposition post 1981 that’s got double figure leads to then lose the election – Kinnock’s Labour, and those double figure leads were during the Poll Tax riots – something the Tories had successfully distanced themselves by ’92.

  31. “Clawback” of incumbent (+/-) from polling 12 months prior to general election

    With seven of these eight elections taking place under a three party system…

    IPSOS database
    h ttp://

    1979 -8%

    1983 -4%

    1987 +8%

    1992 +1%

    HoC research
    H ttp://

    1997 turnaround +6 (Gallup) +3 (ICM) +4 (MORI) = average clawback +4%

    2001 turnaround -7 (Gallup) -1 (ICM) -12 (MORI) = average clawback -6%

    IPSOS database
    From h ttp://

    2005 turnaround +1

    2010 turnaround +2 (YG) +1 (ICM) +3 (pop) +1 (MORI) +3 (ComRes) = average clawback +2%

    Conclusion purely from the data itself?

    Average incumbent clawback 1979 – 2010 was **MINUS** 0.25%

  32. @Craig

    “please can we all remember that we are in a two party scenario again for the first time since 1981 (and will remain so in all likelihood until the next GE).
    Not if you replace Ed Miliband with another New Labour candidate, you won’t. ;)”

    You think Burnham or Cooper are Blairites ??!!

  33. Brownites are just as much a part of New Labour as Blairites (although not as bad, granted); you only have to look at Burnham’s voting record and then listen to his arguments during the leadership election to see he’s not the least bit interested in departing from New Labour.

  34. Rob Sheffield

    You said “…*Martyn no sign whatsoever of your confident predictions taken from the reliable Guido…”

    Looks like I’ll just have to wait until Balls makes a mistake. After all, he’s only hum…er, scratch that. Mostly human. Yep, that was it: he’s mostly human… :-)

    At least the part that our mortal senses can perceive, that is: the part that wears human skin that nearly fits, that walks amongst the innocent almost like a real boy, the part that is utterly convincing until you realise he doesn’t cast a shadow and his lip movements don’t match his words.

    As for the rest of his essence, who can tell? Nobody’s ever gotten instruments close enough to measure before they melt. We’ll just have to stand in awe of the uncategorizable, unspeakable…entity that uses the human name “Ed Balls”. At least until we work out how to pronounce his abhuman name – which’ll be impossible, since neither of us have a beak.

    Regards, Martyn

  35. I too think that AJ was an interim CoE and Balls was kept away to, a) keep the Blairites happy (to unite the party) and b) wait until the story re it is all Brown’s fault could be turned. The public are becoming aware that there has been a world recession and it wasn’t all Brown’s fault. Coupled with this it looks like that the coalition may not last until 2015. So now is the right time to bring Balls back.

  36. @ Rob Sheffield

    What have you been smoking – there’s no way Cooper or Burnham will ever be Labour leader! If EM get’s toppled I can’t see anyone but his brother taking over.

    But I highly doubt this would ever happen. Parties tend to stick with unpopular leaders if they are ahead in the polls (e.g. Thatcher pre-79 and Kinnock pre-92) and even unpopular leaders can become PM (e.g. Heath and Thatcher). The only way it could happen would be if Labour fall behind in the polls (maybe Cameron will tempt the Argies to have another go for the Falklands!).

    If this should happen, or EM makes some real gaffes, or losed by/elections he should win, then the vultures could be out – then the fact that he didn’t win the support of the PLP will become a factor (as Duncan Smith found out).

    But don’t forget it is extremely difficult to get rid of a sitting Labour leader (as Gordon discovered).

  37. @Martyn

    “Looks like I’ll just have to wait until Balls makes a mistake.”

    a mea culpa- that’s very magnanimous of you.


  38. @Adrian B

    “What have you been smoking – there’s no way Cooper or Burnham will ever be Labour leader! If EM get’s toppled I can’t see anyone but his brother taking over.”

    I much preferred DM to his brother as I said so many times on here last summer.

    But his decision to leave the government (when EdM offered him a role) has likely finished him IMHO.

    Both Cooper and Burnham are his political and intellectual equal (a few will say his superior) and they are both in the shadow cabinet batting on the front foot for Labour.

    I honestly cannot see any scenario that leads to DM being leader. I can see an (outside, wild) scenario where he (and supporters) do a Heseltine circa 1990.

    But Heseltine did not get the crown did he?

    You want to force me to predict- Yvette Cooper.


  39. The polling impact will be felt only from the reporting of the stories, not from any particular views from the public about the issues themselves. The public don’t much care who is Shadow Chancellor, or who is the chief Tory spin doctor.

    As for the impact on politics itself, that will largely depend on where Balls positions himself on the deficit / need for cuts, and whether Coulson’s replacement is any good at his/her job. On the whole I haven’t been all impressed by the Tory PR effort over the last 2 years. Perhaps there is a new star in the making ready to step into his shoes.

  40. @Neil A – “The polling impact will be felt only from the reporting of the stories, not from any particular views from the public about the issues themselves.”

    Agreed. I assume Coulson went today thinking the media would crawling all over Blair’s testimony at Chilcot. Its striking that all the main news outlets as far as I can make out have Coulson quitting as their top story.

  41. @Alec,

    Yup, but the Coulson story would have dominated the news anyway. At least there will be competition for column inches this weekend and next week, with rumours about naughty policemen and dissertations about the legality of the Iraq war.

  42. @RobS

    I have to be magnanimous, otherwise he’ll eat me and leave me to digest in one of his exterior stomachs… :-)


  43. @RobS (reposted due to bad HTML)

    I have to be magnanimous, otherwise he’ll eat me and leave me to digest in one of his exterior stomachs… :-)

    Regards, Martyn

  44. Your clarification Anthony (order of questions) thank you for that. Thumbing through them again, I still think there was an emphasis on the very negative for the Labour negative ones and more generalised for the negative Conservative ones. The latter ones seemed to find approval from some quarter of their own supporters, which raised my eyebrow.

    If Coulson was supposed to be keeping the Tory party in touch with ordinary people and convincing them Conservatives are being fair to everyone , then the answers to the two questions on those at subjects should be of great concern to them.

    Perhaps better they get someone who does not despise the ‘ordinary man’ as Fleet St tends to (well, *they* despise everyone and admire themselves, a bit like me really).

  45. @Martyn – “otherwise he’ll eat me and leave me to digest in one of his exterior stomachs… ”

    Ah – so that’s what Eric Pickles is…..

  46. @Ann (in Wales) – Amber Star pointed out to me that it was a problem in childhood which he has, to all intents and purposes, overcome.

  47. @ ROb Sheffield,

    I guess I’m thinking of a Portillo like return (although it didn’t work out for him did it). Where DM returns as the Tories start to recover in the polls (let’s say post-2012 and the Olympics) and EM is looking to stregthen his position with the right of the party.

    DM would be the “safe” rival to bring in as it is unthinkable that he would seek to topple his brother. EM loses the GE with small Tory majority and DM is ushered in.

    I agree a Heseltine strike is completely implausible but should he fall (under a bus, struck by a Balls?) then potentially …

  48. @THEGREENBENCHES thanks for that, should be an interesting weekend

  49. @Rob Sheffield – “You want to force me to predict- Yvette Cooper.”

    Her reasoning for not standing for the leadership last Summer was family commitments, and that she has hopes her career has a futher 25 years to run.

    The youngest child would still be at primary school in 2015 (just) if that enters into the calculations.

  50. ‘@Billy Bob,
    I must admit that I did not know that and I sympathise
    greatly with anyone with a speech impediment; but knowing how ruthless the press is,it will not be long before cheap jibes are being made.Milliband also has vocal problems but I guess they can look after themseves!

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