Johnson ‘too normal’ for place at the top

Soon after Alan Johnson was appointed shadow chancellor he quipped to a reporter that he would have to buy “an economics primer”.

His critics quickly seized on the “gaffe” but to Mr Johnson’s admirers it was a typical example of the light touch and easy manner he brought to the job – commodities in increasingly short supply in Westminster.

“If you want to quote from some humourless, po-faced politician, go and talk to a Liberal Democrat,” he later joked to the Financial Times.

Long touted as a potential leader of the Labour party whose modesty stood in the way, Mr Johnson’s departure from the shadow cabinet will certainly deplete the pool of experience on the front bench.

Orphaned at 12 and raised by his elder sister on a rough west London council estate, Mr Johnson left school at 15 with no qualifications apart from a devotion to music and the mod lifestyle.

His CV includes leading the Communication Workers’ Union and holding four top cabinet posts – home, business, health and education – as well as time spent working as a postman and stacking supermarket shelves.

It was a life story that increasingly stood out in Westminster. He will be replaced on the front bench by Ed Balls, a privately educated former special adviser, who will oppose the chancellor George Osborne.

Indeed it was this grounded charm, warmth and breadth of experience that convinced Ed Miliband to opt for the Hull West and Hessle MP rather than the more economically literate and ambitious Mr Balls.

On occasion this appeared to be paying off. Mr Johnson was praised for his confident, fluid and sure-footed response to the spending review.

Yet Mr Johnson also found himself at odds with the Labour leader over the 50p tax rate and a graduate tax, adding to suggestions that Mr Miliband’s first few months at the top lacked purpose and verve.

Mr Johnson appeared to struggle on economic details, notoriously misstating the employers’ rate for national insurance. But more worrying for the long term was the absence of chemistry with Mr Miliband, who seemed a business colleague rather than a close partner in a political project to win back power.

Mr Johnson and Mr Miliband were allocated the same offices in Westminster that were once occupied by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne before the election, but the shadow chancellor spent most of his time in his old office in a separate building.

“At least once a week we have a sit-down and talk about issues,” he told the FT. MPs soon talked of Mr Johnson as a stop-gap appointment that would last for no more than two years.

One of his biggest achievements in government included introducing university tuition fees. But his stints at various departments were generally marked more by calm than scandal or revolution.

Though sometimes described as the best leader Labour never had, Mr Johnson’s critics were never convinced he had a thirst for power and devotion to political life.

One Labour website on Thursday night described Mr Johnson as just “too normal” for the political top flight.

In the event Mr Johnson decided against ever running for the Labour leadership, instead bidding in 2007 for the deputy leadership – a race he lost by the smallest of margins to Harriet Harman.

When asked about his political ambitions by a television interviewer, Mr Johnson said the idea of him winning the keys to No 10 was similar to “the idea of putting the Beagle on to Mars – a nice idea but doomed to failure”.

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