“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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.