Logger-Eds? Not quite.

The shadow chancellor is no dagger-wielding don.

Those who were there will remember the tension in the room. It was the New Statesman debate at the outset of Labour's arduous leadership election. As Balls interrupted his future leader, Miliband lashed out, "It's just like being back at the Treasury". Balls snapped backk, "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do." The sarcasm hung thick in the air.

Much of the subtext in the final weeks was about how Balls would react to whichever Mili-brother was the victor. If David won, would we see a return to the TB/GBs? A younger Blair vs. Brown? If Mili-Ed won, how would Balls cope with being subservient to a man once his junior when the Treasury was his domain?

As it happened, the younger Miliband won. It was a squeaker. You know the rest. Balls was placed in the Shadow Home Office role, a heavy artillery weapon plonked on Theresa May's lawn. 

It wasn't the role that he wanted. He had too much time on his hands. He longed for the role he was born for. 

The role he had really been running for all the long.

Shadow Chancellor. 

He was publicly loyal, and got on with the job at hand, but few believed he was as happy with his new role as he professed to be.

And then, a twist of fate. Alan Johnson resigned (personal reasons). Balls assumed the role he had always coveted (personal triumph). Once again, Labour's economic policy was in the hands of a giant clunking fist. Johnson had joked of his need for an economic primer. Balls - as anyone who has spent time with the man will attest - has no need for such a rudimentary tome, peppering his conversations with "Ricardian Equivalence" and "Post Neo-Classical Endogenous Growth Theory". Pass the dictionary.

And yet the rumours of Balls-ite plots continued unabated. Yvette Cooper found herself pushed to the fore as Labour's presumptive leader-in-waiting during each one of Ed Miliband's leadership mini-crises. The line went out through the media that this was the work of Balls on behalf of his wife. 

What sexist tosh it was. Yvette Cooper is nothing if not someone who can look after herself. 

The rumours reached a crescendo with what became known as “Lasagne-gate”, where the Balls-Cooper clan reached out to their shadow teams by feeding them. To read the media write ups you'd think this were Labour's latest food-based coup (and they're always food based – always), but nothing came of it besides an opportunity for Balls to refer regularly in public to his 14-hour pulled pork.

The truth and the relationship between the pair of Eds has always been more mundane. 

Last year, around twelve months after that fiesty New Statesman exchange, I was speaking at an event in Parliament. Half way through, Ed Balls appeared at the back of the room, trying to catch the attention of an MP, before disappearing with an almost cartoonish grin on his face. Thirty seconds later, the door at the front of the room swung open. Laughter echoed in the corridor, and in came not only Balls, but Miliband too. Smiling, laughing, joking like friends. But with no cameras about, no need to put on a show.

Since then, this is a side to the “Two Eds” that has been seen more often and more publicly. They're a strong double act in front of both public and press. They seem comfortable in each other's company. They compliment each other. They look, it is possible to say, like a team.

And so it was surprising today to read Rachel Sylvester writing today in the Times that the relationship is strained. There is a “tension” between the two, we are told. There's more “reciprocated mistrust than mutual respect”. 

That's possible, perhaps, but it relies on us believing that both Balls and Miliband are great actors. For the avoidance of doubt, neither man is going to be winning a BAFTA any time soon. 

Similarly, Sylvester states that, “Mr Balls’s hint that the party might support a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU did not go down well with other Shadow Cabinet ministers.” The reality, again, is boringly mundane. Balls discussed Labour's EU referendum line with Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander weeks ago. It was, as the parlance goes, “the line”. 

Yet it's not hard to see why these briefings against Balls are coming in. They are no doubt borne out of frustration with the iron grip that the Shadow Chancellor and his team have over public spending commitments. As I wrote back in December:

Nothing that could even notionally impinge on economic policy is put forward without the explicit say-so of the shadow chancellor – a cause for silent frustration for many seeking to make their mark around the shadow cabinet table.

That frustration, it would seem, is rather less silent than it once was. The weapon used for retribution is a blunt and well used implement – Balls-as-Brownite-bruiser with his “bovver boys” and “punishment beatings”. Perhaps this once rang true – heaven knows Balls is no angel – but it's no longer the powerful line of attack it once was. Balls is an operator, sure, but a dagger-wielding don? To what end?

But if Sylvester is right (which, for further avoidance of doubt, I don't think she is), then would it really be so bad if a leader and his key economic spokesperson were at loggerheads? Blair and Brown may have loathed each other, but the “creative tension” that threatened to crack the walls between Number 10 and Number 11 was responsible for a (perhaps never to be repeated) triplicate of election wins. By contrast, the current PM and his Chancellor are bosom-buddies, with Osborne preferring the role of Mandelsonian strategist to the position of economic Stakanovite. A part-time chancellor propping up a “chillaxed” PM.

Sometimes a little creative tension goes a long way.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of LabourList

Best of buds? Eds Miliband and Balls. Photo: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.