“The other Ed”?

Party figures hope all will come to be well between the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls.

My feature on the Labour leadership race so far, in the magazine out today, focuses on the brothers David and Ed Miliband. It mentions how, to the annoyance of some of Ed's long-time supporters, he used to call himself not just "the other Miliband" but "the other Ed", a reference to Ed Balls, with whom the younger Miliband worked closely first in Gordon Brown's office and then at the Treasury.

As reported in the piece:

One of the most memorable moments of the NS hustings came after Ed Balls produced a lengthy answer, preventing other candidates from joining in that particular discussion. Ed Miliband remarked: "It's like being back in the Treasury." Everyone laughed, apart from Balls, who did not even crack a smile. There was a sharp intake of breath from David Miliband. It was a lethal putdown from a politician whom some in the party had considered "too gentle" for a leadership campaign.

At the time, Ed Balls eventually responded: "Tell us what the answer is then, Ed, as you always do." The frosty exchange was a demonstration of how low their relations had reached, because they were once close friends.

David Miliband and Ed Balls never had much time for each other, serving as they did on opposing front lines of the Blair-Brown wars.

In the case of Balls and Ed Miliband, however, the breakdown of relations was gradual. Balls was for years seen as the dominant figure of the two, and saw himself as the natural successor to Brown. It was that self-belief that, after Brown became prime minister in June 2007, led the then schools secretary to press his master to replace Alistair Darling with Balls as chancellor, to the anger of some in cabinet.

There is no doubt Balls has had his eye on the leadership for some years. That is not ignoble, of course not. A highly rated former Financial Times journalist, Balls is credited with being the man behind independence for the Bank of England, one of New Labour's most eye-catching initiatives at the beginning of the premiership of Tony Blair, with whom Brown had a testing relationship.

As chief economic adviser to the Treasury between 1999 and 2004, and later as economic secretary to the Treasury from 2006 until he was made schools secretary under Brown in 2007, Balls commanded heavy influence over British economic policy. But in other areas, critics accuse him of being a conservative tribalist, not just over a Labour Party that must now reach out to floating voters and those who voted Liberal Democrat without the intention of crowning David Cameron as prime minister, but also regarding himself.

"Instead of waking up each day and thinking, 'How can I help Labour win again?', Balls wakes up and thinks, 'How can I destroy my opponents?' " says one party figure. This may be unfair, but it was an undoubtedly combative tendency that led Balls, in the word of one minister present, to "savage" Ed Miliband when the latter was expressing opposition to building a third runway at Heathrow in cabinet in 2008.

According to one who knows both men, that was the moment their fragile old friendship ended.

But as in the case of the Miliband brothers, Labour's high command will be hoping that Balls's relations with the brothers will endure beyind this contest, too, for the sake of the party all three men undoubtedly love.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Angela Eagle is set to challenge Jeremy Corbyn. But many still hope for Tom Watson

Labour's deputy leader is the potential candidate most feared by Corbyn's supporters. 

The vote of no confidence came. But Jeremy Corbyn didn't go. As anticipated, the Labour leader declared just 20 minutes after his defeat that he would not "betray" his supporters "by resigning". Having never enjoyed the confidence of MPs to begin with (as few as 14 voted for him), he is unfazed by losing it now. His allies are confident that he retains the support of a majority of Labour's selectorate. 

The likeliest resolution is a leadership contest in which Corbyn is challenged by a single "unity candidate": Angela Eagle (as I predicted on Monday). Labour's former shadow first secretary of state, who impressed when deputising for the leader at PMQs, has been ready to stand for months. MPs speak of her enjoying support "across the span" of the Parliamentary Labour Party, from the "soft left" to "moderates" to "Blairites". A source told me: "It is no surprise that colleagues are turning to her. She is very much considered a tough, Angela Merkel-type figure who can lead the party through this difficult period." There is no sign that the backing of her own constituency party (Wallasey) for Corbyn will deter her. 

Other potential candidates such as Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna have relinquished their ambitions for now. But two names still recur: Owen Smith and Tom Watson. Smith, who first revealed his leadership ambitions to me in an interview earlier this year, would run as a competent, soft left alternative to Corbyn. But it is Watson who the Labour leader's supporters fear most. He comfortably won last year's deputy leadership election and is renowned for his organisational abilities and trade union links. For these reasons, many regard him as a more formidable opponent than Eagle. "Fourth in the deputy leadership election to first in the leadership election in 10 months is a big challenge," an MP noted. 

But as deputy leader, Watson has long regarded it as his duty to preserve party unity above all. A challenge to Corbyn, pitting him against most current members (including a significant number who voted for him), unavoidably conflicts with this role. For this reason, Watson's supporters hope that a combination of pressure from MPs, some unions (who are expected to meet the Labour leader today), council leaders and members (who are "absorbing" the no confidence vote) could yet persuade the leader to stand down. Under this scenario, Watson would automatically become interim leader, either steering Labour through an early general election or presiding over a multi-candidate leadership contest. 

Should Corbyn refuse to resign today (as most of the rebels expect), some still hope that Watson could be persuaded to run. But assuming the Labour leader automatically makes the ballot paper (a matter of legal dispute), a contest between himself and Eagle is likely to ensue. Having won the backing of just 40 of Labour's 229 MPs in the confidence vote, Corbyn would struggle to achieve the 50 MP/MEP nominations required to qualify. 

A final, little-discussed scenario involves Corbyn agreeing to step down in return for a guarantee that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and his closest ally, would make the ballot. This would ensure the far-left representation in the contest and reduce the possibility of a split. But it would run the risk of merely replicating the present schism in a new form.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.