Why Miliband-Balls won't be a repeat of Blair-Brown

Having witnessed the original feud at first hand, both men are conscious of the need to avoid an irrevocable split.

Appearing on Daybreak this morning, Ed Miliband was inevitably asked about the email sent by his aide Torsten Bell describing Ed Balls as a "nightmare". He replied: 

It’s fair to say that people send silly emails in offices and this was one of them. Ed and I are working really well together. I'm really proud to have him as the shadow chancellor, working alongside me. He is someone who I think has been right in his criticism of the government's economic policy and he's also leading the way on this cost of living crisis.

He will want to prepare a condensed version of that answer for this week's PMQs, when he can expect David Cameron to mention the incident at every opportunity. 

The leak (the result of Bell accidentally copying in Tory MP James Morris rather than the Labour pollster of the same name) means that there will be even more scrutiny of Balls and Miliband's words in an attempt to find differences between the two men. 

There are genuine tensions. As I wrote yesterday, the Labour leader's team have privately accused the shadow chancellor, who was not Miliband's first choice for the job, of being insufficiently committed to his responsible capitalism agenda and too focused on defending the record of the last Labour government. There also differences between the pair over HS2 and the proposed third runway at Heathrow, with Balls openly favouring the latter over the former, the reverse of Miliband's position.

But if comparisons with Blair and Brown are inevitable, they are also wide of the mark. Perhaps the most important difference is that Balls has no intention of seeking to dislodge Miliband. Unlike Brown, he was beaten in a leadership contest and is now focused on becoming Chancellor, the job for which he is supremely qualified.

The experience of the Blair-Brown fued, which both men witnessed at first hand as advisers to the Chancellor, also means that they are more conscious than they might otherwise be of the need to avoid an irrevocable split. As Miliband remarked after appointing Balls as shadow chancellor: "We have seen that movie before and had front row seats. We are determined that there will be no sequel. It was a formative experience for both of us. It is something we are absolutely determined to avoid and we will avoid." 

While tensions and differences of emphasis (hardly unusual between a leader and his shadow chancellor) are likely to remain, those Tories hoping that history will repeat itself are likely to be disappointed. 

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair stand in front of the Cenotaph on Whitehall during the annual Remembrance Sunday service on November 10, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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