by David Talbot
The psychodrama returns. A brooding, man of Brown, the shadow chancellor has taken against the young upstart Labour leader. Beadily eyeing what should be his, he uses secrecy, intellect and sheer aggression to domineer over his colleagues and undermine the leader he so clearly has scant respect for. Tentatively reported at the weekend, but now repeated as fact, the hierarchy of the Labour party is once again locked in a totemic struggle. Ed Miliband and Balls are said to be in the early skirmishes of something the Labour party has historically excelled at: vicious internal warfare.
We have, of course, been here before. Comparisons with the machinations that so undermined Labour’s thirteen years are inevitable. That the new cast are the support acts from the previous scene make the comparisons that much easier. Ed Balls displays a startling resemblance to the man he once so slavishly served. He is Gordon Brown’s man and Gordon is his man. Much of the words used by those oft-quoted “senior Labour party figures” are scarily similar to Brown; “high maintenance”, “secretive” and “domineering” to name just a few of the more praiseworthy adjectives.
It is, though, easy to admire his intellect, his work load, his ability to once organise a famously disorganised chancellor and, most recently, his uncanny knack of visibly infuriating the prime minister. But most of all he is a direct and influential. He has taken the eminently sensible step of vetoing shadow cabinet members committing to future spending plans.
For once the Brownite trait of an iron grip is to be praised wholeheartedly – Balls knows that the public retain a deep suspicion that the Labour party only knows how to govern by spending a grotesque level of money that simply isn’t there.
Not unsurprisingly, though, he is struggling to come to terms with the arrangements that now find him bequeathing his position to a man he long regarded as his junior.
But he is not stupid; he knows that to destabilise Miliband to such an extent that outright election victory is jeopardised will destroy him and deny him the position he so craves – to be a Labour chancellor.
His ambition can surely soar no higher. He tested his leadership credentials in 2010 and was roundly routed.
The accusations laid so heavily at Ed Balls’ door are the exact opposite directed to Miliband. Meek, insecure, deferential – it could be suggested that Miliband needs some balls.
Knowing, through his near twenty years working alongside his rival, that Balls can be serially and uncontrollably disloyal, he was not keen to grant him the shadow chancellorship and the powerbase that involves.
But equally, when it was clear that Alan Johnson was simply not up to the job, Miliband recognised that Balls’ credentials were unequalled; he retains an ability in economics that few, if any, in the Labour party can match.
Having steered the Labour party away from the rocks of civil war into which near all suspected it would long have since crashed, talk of the two Ed’s replicating the type of dysfunctional relationship that existed between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are premature. And, even if true, it is not necessarily an accusation over which to abandon ship.
You can think that Ed Miliband is a political lightweight and Ed Balls a slightly frightening character and be perfectly content. Conscious of the destructive relationship between their predecessors, Messrs Miliband and Balls will surely come back from the brink, if, indeed, they were ever near the edge, and work to improve their relationship.
Both men are committed to winning the next election and are increasingly confident it can be done. For all the tantrums, tears, threats and factions from the previous two at the apex of the Labour party, when they weren’t at each other’s throat, or preparing the next stranglehold, they managed to win three successive elections. One suspects that Balls and Miliband will gladly suffer each other if it offers even a hope of emulating the two men they shadowed for so long.
David Talbot is a political consultant