Challenges facing shadow chancellor Alan Johnson

By Ross Hawkins
Political correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Alan Johnson has two weeks to prepare his response to the coalition's spending review

Now we know: Labour's economic policy will not be settled around the kitchen table of the Balls /Cooper household.

Ed Balls had argued cuts in spending should be not only slower than the coalition's plans, but slower than those set out by Labour before the election.

Had he been appointed shadow chancellor, commentators would have assumed the new Labour leader had decided to adopt that analysis. If his wife had got the job they would have come to a similar conclusion.

Instead Ed Miliband has appointed Alan Johnson, who as a former home secretary has been asked rather more rarely for his views on the economy.

He has served in departments with an economic remit - as secretary of state at work and pensions and at trade and industry, but that was years before the debate began to centre on the deficit.

In a recent newspaper interview though Mr Johnson observed the public "don't want to see the deficit go on forever".

Labour needed a "valid, logical argument" for tackling the deficit, he said.

Unstuffy and likeable

Interestingly in the same interview he made his support for the Miliband brother who lost the then ongoing leadership contest very clear.

"I think David is head and shoulders above the other candidate," he said.

Now he is arguably the most important man in Ed Miliband's team.

The former postman is known for being unstuffy and likeable.

He will need to be persuasive to reconcile differing views among Labour MPs on the future of the economy.

Already the Conservatives have said he looks like a caretaker appointment. His capacity to oppose their plans will be put to the test very soon.

Mr Johnson's first major challenge will be responding to the Spending Review in which the government will set out plans for cuts.

The new shadow chancellor's response to that statement will define Labour's position on the economy.

He has under a fortnight to prepare.