The New Statesman Profile - Yvette Cooper

A mother and a minister at 30, could she one day be chancellor in a Gordon Brown government? Yvette

There's no halfway house with Yvette Cooper. A fresh-faced MP brought into government as public health minister at the last reshuffle, she is either new Labour's bright young star, a brilliant but shrewd politician who may, one day, be chancellor herself . . . or else she's just an appealing, loyal drone who has earned her promotion largely by being closely connected to Gordon Brown, after her marriage to his adviser Ed Balls. Star or stooge? New woman - or a nice lass who's married well?

She is certainly new Labour aristocracy. Her wedding to Balls was celebrated at an Eastbourne hotel with a riotously successful party that boasted the cream of new Labour's political and media set. Reports of who was talking to whom were being phoned to Tony Blair's aides, who were in Tokyo on a trip.

But it would be a big mistake to see Cooper as anything less than serious. She is obsessively interested in her constituency, works frantically hard and has little time for the usual Westminster back-biting. This is a thoroughly focused woman, who can appear earnest to the point of naivety - though, as her rise has shown, she's politically astute, too.

As with many MPs, including Blair, the fight for the constituency nomination was the first serious pointer to the new politician's determination and style. For Cooper, Pontefract and Castleford was her third attempt, after failing in the two safe seats of Wentworth and Warrington North. The departure of Pontefract's Geoffrey Lofthouse, a former deputy speaker, was accomplished with the bribe of a life peerage and a certain amount of new Labour threats; but far from handing Cooper the seat, it merely put her into a field that included such favourites as Derek Scott, Blair's economic adviser, Hilary Benn and the leader of Kirklees Council, John Harman.

Cooper did an exceptional amount of homework and, by some accounts, mischievously briefed rivals with "helpful" advice about the constituency party's prejudices. She then gave a bravura performance at the selection meeting, dispensing with the microphone the others had used and advancing, disarmingly, into the body of the hall to take questions. They fell for her and it has been, by all accounts, an exceptionally good constituency relationship ever since.

She can, however, provoke resentment. Five years ago, on her very first day with the Independent newspaper, she joined 11 other journalists for lunch with the governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George. Such lunches are usually convivial affairs - but this one proved to be an exception. The governor left, not best pleased, after the 25-year-old Cooper had lambasted him for two hours over the bank's incompetence, particularly over the Barings affair. No first day nerves there.

Described last year in the Sunday Times as the "dazzling star of the Blairite nomenklatura", she has infuriated some of the older colleagues she's left behind her. It isn't hard to hear that she is just a pretty face married to Ed who's been taken under Gordon Brown's wing. One veteran Labour MP - on hearing the news that she will develop policy for teenage mothers - barked that she looks no more than a teenage mother herself. Others say she is not as bright as she thinks she is.

Sour grapes? Certainly she looks younger than her 30 years and fitter than a hard-working mother of a six-month-old child (Meriel) has any right to. Motherhood, like so much else in Cooper's life, seems to have come easily to her. A contemporary at Balliol College, Oxford, recalls meeting her this summer at a reunion for women students. She'd thought she'd read recently that Cooper had just given birth. Yet here she was, full of energy and pencil-slim. And yes, Cooper had given birth just two weeks before, but was back in action rather more quickly than most.

Contrary to press reports, Cooper did not decide to become an MP at the age of ten and prime minister at the age of 14. As a child, she wanted to be a tap-dancer or an actress. She did, however, grow up in a highly political household. Her father, Tony Cooper, was general secretary of the Engineers' and Managers' Association, her mother's family had worked in the mines and they were all solidly Labour.

After a comprehensive school education in Hampshire and a First in PPE at Oxford, she followed a classic new Labour trajectory - a year at Harvard as a Kennedy scholar, like Ed Balls, then economic researcher for John Smith when he was shadow chancellor. She worked on "that" shadow budget in 1992 and was, like everyone else, chastened by its tax-rise-promising failure. Today she'll argue that Labour is even more distributive and radical now than it was back in 1992 - it just presents itself differently. The party has learnt, she believes, that what it has to portray above all is financial credibility.

Next, a spell as a staffer in Bill Clinton's "war-room" in Arkansas in 1992, then adviser to Harriet Harman and Brown in Labour's treasury team, followed by work for the Centre for Economic Performance and two years with the Independent. It's rare enough to find a politician who's economically literate. Cooper is supremely so, having taken a master's degree in the subject at the London School of Economics on top of her Oxford and Harvard studies. That's given her a self-confidence in debate and in media interviews which quickly marked her out from the rest of the "Blair babes" of the 1997 intake of MPs. A friend recalls how she triumphed on Newsnight recently when - in a discussion about the economy - it soon became clear that Cooper knew a lot more about the subject than Kirsty Wark, who was interviewing her.

One fellow writer at the Independent describes her then as a perfectly competent journalist, but detected a feeling that Cooper had "parked" herself there while working out what to do next. (One possibility she toyed with: management consultancy.)

Westminster beckoned. Looking back, she had it all: real new Labour credibility and connections, yet with charm and a solid Labour Party working-class background.

So what drives her? Where does that determination and focus come from? The unusual answer seems to be ME - myalgic encephalomyelitis - a disease that struck her down when she was 24 and from which some people never recover. It left her shattered and unable to get out of bed. As she described it earlier this year: "Every joint in my body ached, and just walking across the room became almost impossible. Even everyday activities that people take for granted - things such as making a cup of tea - became huge tasks."

ME is still thought by some in the medical profession to be psychosomatic, essentially a way of someone dropping out of a life they can't cope with. But Cooper has no truck with such a suggestion - it was quite clearly a viral illness, which began with flu, she believes, and from which she has now fully recovered. She was too ill even to read books - it wasn't a year of intellectual development, catching up on all the political tracts she hadn't had time for before. All she could do was watch daytime television: she became addicted to soaps - an interest that has also helped to establish her "real world" credentials with Labour voters. It also gave her that sense of "too little time, too much to do" which drives the highest achievers.

Cooper does also have real political motivation and friends claim she is driven by a passionate desire for social justice. She speaks angrily of social exclusion, quoting the 30 per cent gap between the national average for children staying on at school after 16 and her own Castleford constituency. Inequalities in healthcare caused by the class system are another favourite topic, and one she'll now be in a position to do something about. She talks too much, too insistently, about such issues for them to be a mere adjunct to a career.

Some look at her and Ed Balls, the government job, the baby, the constituency and think something will have to give. Perhaps. But as to the family, for now she has good childcare, a helpful mother and she pops home from Westminster whenever she can. Dad is taking his turn, too. The Treasury is making big efforts to get Balls home early at night and many a journalist now has discussions about high-flown economic theory interrupted by, "Oh God, hang on a minute, the baby's being sick".

Will he try and rival her as an MP and minister on his own account? There was never a deal between Balls and Cooper, as there was between the Blairs, that whoever became an MP first would have the political career. There was talk of Balls seeking a neighbouring constituency, but for now he's happy enough behind the scenes. Brilliant though he may be, he doesn't have the appetite for electioneering. Economists insist he has the better intellect. But she has the common sense and the emotional material: together they make two sides of a formidable brain.

It's a mug's game to predict the future in politics, and Cooper herself is honest enough to admit she doesn't know how having children will eventually affect her career. Nor can anyone know if she has in her the qualities that make a great politician, rather than just a good minister - the ability to stand up to powerful forces, to take on big ideas, to change the climate. Still, she has rare qualities, a good mix of shrewdness and brains and, so far, the essential extra ingredient of luck.

It is not impossible to think far ahead, ten years perhaps, to a Labour government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with Yvette Cooper as his chancellor. A long shot, maybe. But a thought, we can be sure, that has crossed her mind as well.

Yvette Cooper was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2009 to 2010, and is chair of the Changing Work Centre, set-up by the Fabian Society and Community Union.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser