Blair's babes nudge for places at the top table

Bright, ambitious, youthful, Labour's high-flyers are busy sorting out the future
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Kathy Marks

The next generation of Labour high-flyers is already in place, occupying influential positions at the heart of government. These are the fledgling politicians who helped to engineer Labour's election victory and now occupy desks in key Whitehall offices.

They are the aides, thinkers and special advisers who play a central role in the formation of policy and have daily access to Tony Blair and his ministers. They are bright, ambitious and above all youthful. Die- hard Blairite modernisers without exception, they are a close-knit network of people who work. socialise and, in some cases, live together. They met through school, university or youth politics and introduced one another to their political patrons.

A cluster of these rising stars work in the No 10 Policy Unit, the powerhouse of New Labour ideas, including the policy director, David Miliband, 32, a former academic with a fearsome intellect tipped as a future Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Treasury is another breeding-ground. One of the senior advisers to the Chancellor Gordon Brown is Ed Miliband, 30, brother of David. His chief strategist is Ed Balls, 29, a former Financial Times leader writer who is engaged to Yvonne Cooper, Labour MP for Pontefract and Castleford.

Some members of the inner circle are found in ministers' private offices - Liz Kendall, for instance, a 26-year-old who guides Harriet Harman around the intricacies of the social security system. Others, more on the periphery, work for think-tanks, lobbying firms and private political consultancies.

The links between them are many and complex. Ed Miliband is the long- standing boyfriend of Liz Lloyd, 26, a home affairs adviser in the Policy Unit. Ms Lloyd went to school in Guildford with James Purnell, 27, who also works in the unit, and with Tim Allan, 27, Alastair Campbell's deputy in the Downing Street press office.

Mr Allan and Mr Purnell share a house in Tony Blair's Islington heartland, together with Gail Nuttley, Mr Purnell's girlfriend, who used to work for BMP, Labour's advertising agency. On Sunday mornings they kick a football around Highbury Fields with others such as Peter Hyman, of the Policy Unit, and Ian Corfield, research director of the Fabian Society.

Another keen footballer is Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, a disconcertingly self- possessed 23-year-old who is Peter Mandelson's chief aide. Derek Draper, 29, used to do the same job. Mr Draper, whose book on the first 100 days of the Blair government will be published next month, is now with Prima Europe, a political consultancy.

Despite their loyalty to Blair, not all of them live in Islington. The Miliband brothers occupy separate flats within a handsome house in Primrose Hill. Mr Draper lives two doors away from Ms Lloyd in Kennington.

Most of these bright young things - metropolitan, cosmopolitan and media streetwise - have degrees from Oxbridge or redbrick universities. Several had stints at the BBC. Mr Purnell was John Birt's policy adviser, and has also worked for Islington Council, a training ground for young Blairites.

Members of the group insist that it is not a closed set. But certainly, it has its uses. Mr Purnell, who worked as an adviser to Mr Blair after university, recommended Mr Allan for his job when he left in 1992. When the latter quit for the BBC in 1994, Ms Lloyd took over.

"They're suspicious of people who they think are not on the side of the party," one political journalist said. "That can make them seem rather reticent and cool." Mr Draper said: "It's a very strong network, no doubt about it. But it's an open, meritocratic clique. The reason that we all get on, to be arrogant about it, is that we're all very clever."

Confidence they do not lack, nor talent, nor ambition. David Miliband and Mr Purnell, together with the lobbyists Ben Lucas and Neal Lawson, all want to be MPs. Ed Balls is surely destined for high office. But with power so centralised in the Government, they already wield enormous influence.

Outside work, members of the circle meet up at dinner parties and restaurants. Several are members of the Groucho Club, the media haunt, and the Soho House Club. Mr Draper and Mr Allan are drinking partners who go out "on the pull" together.

While Mr Draper is a notorious party animal, some of the others are more retiring. Mr Corfield says he has never seen either of the Miliband brothers drunk. What unites them politically is their pragmatism, having watched the Labour Party tear itself apart in opposition. Despite their jobs, they claim not to have an exaggerated idea of their own importance. "We're there to assist elected politicians," one special adviser said. "We're not players. Once you see yourself as a player, you're dead."

Donald Macintyre interviews

Peter Mandelson, page 14