5 September 2012

The two Eds: smoke and fire or neither?

The majority of us, far from the inner circles of politics as we are, can only glean what is going on from what we are told by the media. Much of that is fed to us, directly or indirectly, by an army of media handlers and is intended to manipulate our opinions rather than to inform us. On the other hand, more than ever before there are numerous accounts what actually went on in the not too distant past available in the form of diaries and memoirs. So, although we have to pick our way through what is presented to us day by day, we probably have better tools for intelligent and sceptical scrutiny than people had even twenty years ago.

As an example, consider the story by Andrew Pierce in the Mail on Sunday on 2 September about poor relations between Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, The Ed to Ed feud that could wreck Miliband's No10 dream. The article is well worth reading in full, but some key extracts are:
Earlier this year, as Ed Miliband launched into one of his long-winded speeches to his shadow cabinet, everyone at least tried to create the impression they were giving the Labour leader their undivided attention. But there was one notable exception, a man who made no effort to conceal the fact the Labour leader had lost the interest of the room. Ed Balls, the pugnacious shadow chancellor and devout disciple of Gordon Brown, was nonchalantly reading and sending messages on his BlackBerry while Mr Miliband droned on. As Mr Balls tapped away, indifferent to the embarrassment of colleagues and anger of the Labour leader, Mr Miliband asserted his authority and snapped: ‘Ed, people can be just as interesting as BlackBerries . . .’ The spat was the latest sign that the relationship between the two men is breaking down both in public and private. They neither like nor trust each other and, crucially, Mr Balls thinks he could do Mr Miliband’s job much better. …  
But the poisonous history between the Eds goes back to the early days of the Blair era, when they were youthful advisers to Mr Brown after he became shadow chancellor in 1994 and then Chancellor in 1997. … Mr Balls was economics adviser, while Mr Miliband was a mere special adviser. Ed Balls, now 45, loved to lord it over his staff, just as he does today. Colleagues at the time recall he treated Mr Miliband, 42, like the ‘office boy’. Mr Balls liked Mr Miliband to make his coffee every morning. ‘He loved to bark out “coffee time”,’ says one well-informed source. ‘Ed sheepishly got up to make it.’ …  
Today as leader it is, of course, Mr Miliband who is more senior. It is he who plays the role of ‘chairman’, summing up the views of his colleagues at the end of shadow cabinet meetings. But, tellingly, this happens only after he has invited Mr Balls to give his verdict on the contributions made by other members of the shadow cabinet to any meeting. The result is that Mr Balls sometimes talks for three times as long as Mr Miliband. ‘A fly on the wall would assume Balls was leader,’ says one witness to the proceedings. …  
It should have been a marriage of equals between leader and shadow chancellor. They are both Oxford educated. Mr Balls studied at Harvard and Mr Miliband taught there. But increasingly these days whether it is in meetings or on the telephone, Mr Balls talks over his leader. It infuriates Mr Miliband but he does little other than shrug his shoulders and say: ‘That’s Ed.’ …  
But the problems between them go beyond personal ambition and resentment over the handling of the shadow chancellor portfolio. Mr Miliband is trying to detoxify the Labour brand so damaged by infighting between Blair and Brown. Labour pollsters have identified Gordon Brown’s term in Number 10 as a ‘huge negative’ for the party’s election prospects. And no one in the Labour Party is more closely associated with Mr Brown than Ed Balls. …  
One party figure said: ‘The two Eds have a fundamental disagreement over the City but Balls is making the running and bullying Miliband’s people into submission on a range of policies. ‘It began with Labour’s spending commitments, but now we have to get permission from the shadow chancellor’s office on everything from the future of Trident [nuclear missiles] to keeping open police stations at weekends. Power has shifted from one end of the shadow cabinet table to the other.’  
It is an uncanny echo of the Blair and Brown relationship. And the question is whether it will fester in the same way — and once again tear the Labour party apart.
So, what to make of this? Of course the Mail is a Conservative-supporting newspaper. It must be expected to run stories unhelpful to Labour, particularly in the hope of Labour’s opinion poll lead being dislodged by post-Olympics feel-good and all the positive spin that can be wrapped around the Coalition reshuffle. At the same time, how better to take the heat off a beleaguered Chancellor than to turn it up on his Shadow? Certainly at PMQs on 5 September David Cameron took up the opportunity presented by Pierce’s article:
The Prime Minister: First, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of Chancellors, because I have got my first choice as Chancellor, while he has got his third choice as shadow Chancellor. Apparently, he still has to bring in the coffee every morning—that is how assertive and butch the Leader of the Opposition really is. … 
Edward Miliband: The difference between the shadow Chancellor and the Chancellor is that the shadow Chancellor was right about the economy and the Chancellor was wrong. …
The Prime Minister: … He praised his shadow Chancellor to the gunnels, but let us remember that it was the shadow Chancellor who landed us in this mess. Who was the City Minister when the City went bust? The shadow Chancellor. Who was the man who gave us the biggest budget deficit in the developed world? The shadow Chancellor. That is what that team has delivered and that is why the British people will never trust them again. …  
The Prime Minister: The big difference in British politics is that I do not want to move my Chancellor; the right hon. Gentleman cannot move his shadow Chancellor. The fact is that in spite of all the economic difficulty this is a strong and united Government, and in spite of all the opportunity this is a weak and divided Opposition.
On the other hand, Pierce has his reputation to protect so his references to:
Senior party figures are talking openly  
Colleagues at the time …
says one well-informed source.
One shadow cabinet source said 
The Miliband camp fears 
Blairites wryly observe  
One party figure said
are likely to have some substance and look as though they come from individuals close to Miliband. Mary Riddell had followed the Mail story up in the Daily Telegraph (another Tory-inclined paper) on 4 September in a thoughtful article (again worth reading in full) which, somewhat surprisingly, sought to redress the balance. Indeed, she gave the impression of having spoken to persons close to Balls:
The wars convulsing the Tories and the Lib Dems are supposedly being mirrored by a struggle between Ed Miliband and his pugnacious shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The evidence for this stand-off is somewhat slight. Reports that Mr Balls sends messages on his BlackBerry while the leader is addressing shadow cabinet, and that he hogs the floor, are less than incendiary. Mr Balls is indeed an inveterate texter whose meeting room etiquette may leave something to be desired. None of that is new. …  
The shadow chancellor, capable of inspiring both loyalty and loathing, is a textbook villain. To those who do not like or trust him, he remains Gordon Brown’s “kneecapper”. Yet Mr Balls’s insistence that any policy with a cost attached should be cleared with him is indeed imperative, according to allies who point out that the worsening economic situation means that Labour cannot make any new spending promises for after 2015. Minor disgruntlement on some colleagues’ part has, supporters say, been blown up into a baseless storm. Certainly, the two Eds are not re-enacting the Blair/Brown campaign of mutually assured destruction. …  
And yet the rumours are not entirely baseless. Where Blair and Brown could stake out separate fiefdoms, with Mr Brown (or Mr Balls) calling the economic shots, now the economy is all that matters. That leaves the Eds encamped on the same terrain. No one disputes that there are differences. A Balls ally describes the divides as small and bridgeable, but another observer cites “real tensions and problems”. The latest poll lead, down to six per cent, gives little cause for complacency …  
Labour’s attempts to reforge a one-nation Britain will depend on the alignment of Planet Miliband and Planet Balls. That confluence will, in turn, mean determining exactly where power lies. The interests of both Eds, not to mention the party and the country, may rest on just how assertive the leader is prepared to be. Mr Miliband cannot afford the creeping perception, expressed by one insider, that he “is physically and mentally intimidated” by Mr Balls. While both men would dispute that impression, it is now incumbent on them to demonstrate its untruth.
And if we turn to the diaries and memoirs? An insight into life on Planet Balls during the Labour government comes from Alastair Campbell’s Diaries – for those who lack the stamina to reach down all four volumes, the index pages for Volumes 3 and 4 for “Balls, Ed” are shown below (left and right), and the tone of many of the entries is probably enough. One gets the impression of Campbell’s heart sinking whenever Balls came into sight. The entry “has a civilised discussion with AC” was presumably so rare an occurrence as to merit being recorded for posterity!

A broader perspective can be found in the Epilogue in Alistair Darling’s memoir of his time as Gordon Brown’s Chancellor from 2007 to 2010, Back from the Brink:
Perhaps most damaging, for Gordon in particular, but for all of us in the end, was that he surrounded himself with a cadre of people whose preoccupation was the removal of Tony Blair and the installation of Gordon Brown. They had their own reasons, some political, others personal, but blind loyalty meant that Gordon was only told that which he wanted - or could bear - to hear and that meant, ultimately, that he was ill-served. Speaking truth to power never came into it.  
It would be wrong to claim that there was a plot to get rid of Tony Blair; there was no plot. A plot is secret. This was an open campaign, and as far as the Brownite cabal was concerned, you were with them or against them. It was a fairly brutal regime, and many of us fell foul of it. After Gordon became Prime Minister, the cabal sought fresh enemies and as chancellor I quickly found myself in the firing line. Their underhand tactics, particularly the continuous briefings and leaks to the media, were difficult to bear and were also incredibly damaging to the reputation of the party. Tony and Gordon dominated the Labour party for more than ten years and were an overwhelming force for good, but by the end their feud allowed a cancer to grow which, I believe, contributed to our defeat in 2010. The lessons of this crisis have yet to be fully Iearned and the consequences of what happened are still playing out. (pages 322/323)
All of which leads me to conclude that the smoke isn’t concocted and to suspect fire. After all, I can remember people telling me a few decades ago that newspaper stories about the problems between Prince Charles and Princess Diana were invented, and something similar about the early reports of the Blair-Brown feud. In fact, while the reports in the media may not always have been accurate or complete, the underlying sense of the situation in both cases wasn’t too far from what turned out eventually to have been the reality.

ADDENDUM 6 September

Ed Balls was interviewed today for the Independent by Steve Richards and Andrew Grice, and dismissed the subject discussed above as “complete and utter, total garbage”. In more detail:
… There have been reports of seething tensions between the "two Eds" over policy and Balls' apparent rudeness towards Miliband in Shadow Cabinet meetings. His version is expansive and unequivocal.  
"I came back from holiday and discovered while Ed was also on holiday we are having this big dispute. It was more laughable than concerning. I got back on Sunday and we spent an hour and a half together three days running, talking about what we are doing and where we are going and we spent very little time talking about these stories because they are complete and utter, total garbage."  
The Shadow Chancellor dismisses the stories by placing their complex relationship in a much wider context –the now openly-admitted running battle between the two Eds' former bosses Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. "We are two of the people who in the last Government were trying to fix problems with Alastair Campbell and others. We have learnt from all those problems. The reality with me and Ed is that if there's a problem we sort it out between us because we have the sort of relationship where we can sit down in a room and resolve it and that's how it will be. If there's anyone – whether its Conservatives… or any other noises offs who think their briefings can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by inventing this kind of stuff – we will prove them totally and utterly wrong."  
One allegation, that presumably came from within the Shadow Cabinet, is that Balls ostentatiously consults his BlackBerry while Miliband speaks at length to his frontbench team. Balls jokes about the habit and suggests he is by no means the most addicted to the device. "I was the first person who informed the Leader of Opposition during a Shadow Cabinet meeting a year or so ago about the forthcoming Royal Wedding. All of us are a bit guilty of using our BlackBerry but Yvette [Cooper, Balls' wife] said to me: 'Me and Douglas [Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary] are far worse than you!' "
Readers might be forgiven for concluding that Balls’ recollection of his relationship with Campbell is as shaky as his wife’s grammar. The article concludes:
Today Miliband and Balls speak at a special conference on economic policy. Balls describes it as one of several "stepping stones" towards the next election, in which they seek to frame and win the "intellectual" as well as the political debate. More Labour policy detail will come next year, as Labour combines Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda with the party's traditional goal of redistributing wealth. "We need to look at the rules that govern competition, corporate governance. They need work in a long- term way. But for a route to a fairer society the minimum wage and tax credits are essential."  
Whether the "two Eds" succeed in navigating the "stepping stones" together is one of the biggest questions in British politics. For sure, they are fully aware of the fatal consequences if they fail to do so. ...

ADDENDUM 7 September

The Independent has come back to the subject again today, this time in the form of an opinion piece from its chief political commentator, Steve Richards. Although headed Ed and Ed won't split – they know there's too much at stake and sub-headed There will be no repeat of the Blair/Brown rivalry that still traumatises Labour, what follows is a little more ambivalent by the end:
The relationship between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls is the most important in British politics. David Cameron and George Osborne are in power but their relationship is settled and fully formed. As close friends, they have set their course. The more complex and less harmonious relationship between the two Eds evolves with big strategic and policy decisions still to take. If they can make the partnership work, Labour's chances of winning the next election will be high. If they fail to do so, Labour will lose, irrespective of the Coalition's obvious failings.  
The media tends to frame the present by what has happened in the immediate past. In the case of Miliband and Balls, the temptation to present the duo as a repeat of the Blair/Brown rivalry is proving irresistible, not least because the parallels are obvious. Like Brown, Balls was the more senior figure when the leadership vacancy arose. Like Blair and Brown, the two Eds are two contrasting personalities.  
… Unlike Cameron and Osborne, they are not close. When Miliband left the Treasury for a year in the US, he told friends it was to get a break from Balls as much as from Brown. Not surprisingly, given his experience and range, Balls would at some point like to be leader and Prime Minister. Miliband is nervily aware of this and gets worked up when he reads that Balls is the real leader of the Labour Party. 
So there are the outlines of a potential collapse of a relationship even before an election is won. For their part, Blair and Brown won three. Yet the parallel is too easy and superficial. It does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The differences between the Blair/Brown relationship and the one between the two Eds are far more marked and significant than the similarities. If I were Cameron and Osborne, I would not count on a major split. 
… In terms of ministerial pasts and proximity to power, the two of them are the most experienced leader of the Opposition and shadow Chancellor for decades. Unlike most such duos, they also have a big chance of winning an election after a single term. Given this benevolent context, they will have only themselves to blame if they give fatal ammunition to malevolent internal briefers who only help Cameron and Osborne, the duo who prove that genuine friendship does not guarantee a smooth political ride.

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