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.