Autumn in England means drizzly mornings, dark afternoons and a quick snapshot of the balance of political forces as the main parties all hold their annual conferences. This year also brought a cruel lesson in the frustrations of opposition. The Labour Party conference in Manchester was mesmerized by the final act of a fratricidal struggle between the brothers Miliband, and though Ed triumphed in the contest for party leader, his older brother David’s histrionic departure, not just from the conference but from frontline politics, dominated the headlines. It wasn’t until the announcement of his shadow cabinet that Ed Miliband began to suggest what kind of opposition he intends to offer to the Conservative–Liberal Democrat program of massive budget cuts.
Meanwhile, at the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham George Osborne, who will someday inherit a baronetcy (and several million pounds) from his father and currently serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the elimination of child benefits—monthly payments made to all families with children—for households where either parent earns more than £44,000 ($70,000) a year. He also announced that total welfare payments to any family—which increase with the number of children—would be capped at the level of the national median income, £500 (about $800) a week.
Apart from underlining the government’s ability to suddenly change the terms of the debate, Osborne’s moves, though greeted with outrage by Labour and most of the left, showed tremendous cunning. Given the seemingly universal acceptance of fiscal austerity as the only feasible response to Britain’s trillion-pound government debt, continuing to hand out £1,000 a year (for the first child—and £700 for each additional child) to parents, regardless of their income, is hard to justify. The next day’s Daily Mail headline, "Millionaires Should Still Get Child Benefit, Says Miliband," is a fair indication of Labour’s difficulties. And Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pronouncement that "if people are living on benefits, then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices," explaining the government’s plan to limit total benefits regardless of the number of children in a household, struck a note of right-wing populism that left Labour sounding like flat-footed defenders of an unpopular status quo.
What about the Liberal Democrats? you ask. The party’s first conference in power in nearly a century saw former Nation intern Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister in the coalition government, declare that his party had "no future" as "a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party." Yet Liberals were happy to claim credit for postponing—hence making slightly less likely—a commitment to build a new generation of British nuclear-armed submarines. All fifty-seven of the party’s MPs also signed a pledge to oppose any move to increase university tuition fees—a promise that in many cases lasted less than a month.
During the summer Ed Balls, another contender for the Labour leadership, made repeated, essentially Keynesian attacks on the Conservative-Liberal argument that immediate and drastic cuts in public spending were inevitable, leading some inside the party to hope that whichever Miliband ended up as leader would appoint Balls as shadow chancellor. But Ed Miliband, perhaps fearing a replay of the toxic rivalry between Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown (or perhaps swayed by the fact that in the ballot of Labour MPs for a place in the shadow cabinet, Balls only finished third, fifty-three votes behind his wife, Yvette Cooper), opted instead for Alan Johnson, a Blairite veteran who’d been secretary of education under Blair and secretary of health and then head of the Home Office under Brown. Unlike Balls and Cooper (and Ed Miliband and David Cameron), who all studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, Johnson ended his formal education at the age of 15, when he left school to stack shelves in a supermarket before becoming a postman at 18 and then slowly rising through the ranks of the Labour Party and the Communication Workers Union.