Constituency shake-up clouds family bliss of Labour's golden couple

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Indy Politics

They are the "golden couple" of British politics. But a shake-up of Yvette Cooper and husband Ed Balls's his-'n-hers constituencies could cloud their domestic bliss.

Ms Cooper is a minister in John Prescott's team in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and has a safe seat in West Yorkshire. Mr Balls, the former chief economic adviser to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for the equally safe neighbouring constituency.

Ms Cooper, 35, and Mr Balls, 37, who have three young children, including Madelyn, born in July, were looking forward to managing their busy lives as rising stars in Tony Blair's third term by sharing the domestic workload from their home in the Yorkshire Dales.

However, the Boundary Commission has proposed to abolish Mr Balls's constituency after the next election and put the town of Normanton, which forms the core of the seat, into his wife's constituency. The other wards in his Normanton seat will be absorbed into other bordering MPs' constituencies.

Under normal Labour Party rules, Mr Balls would be expected to bid for the new, enlarged seat. But that would mean taking on his own wife.

Labour has lodged an official protest with the electoral commission at the attempt to cut West Yorkshire's parliamentary seats from 23 to 22. The Labour-controlled Wakefield district council hired an Oxford don to present its objections, and a local newspaper has started a "save our town" campaign in Normanton.

Ms Cooper, a former economics journalist with The Independent, was dubbed one of the Blair "babes'' when she won the rock-solid Labour seat of Pontefract and Castleford in 1997. She held it comfortably in the 2001 general election.

Juggling their careers and home life was tricky until her partner, the Treasury's most powerful economics adviser, who was partly responsible for making the Bank of England independent, was selected in July as prospective candidate.

He gave up his job in the Treasury to nurture his seat. Since then, Mr Balls has been immersing himself in the stuff of local politics.

Local Tories are supporting the commission proposal to scrap Normanton. "The seat hasn't got a single identity. It is shaped like a kidney and one side has nothing in common with the other," said Antony Calvert, a Conservative councillor. Mr Balls told the Wakefield Express: "It would never come to a fight between Yvette and I, and I can't worry about the constituency disappearing right now. My job is to get elected and I'll do my best."

Two neighbouring seats which are to take four of his other wards may be a better long-term prospect than an attempt to unseat his own wife. He has told friends that he is confident of winning an appeal.

The commission proposals are not due to come into effect until after 2006, and on 19 January the commission will announce the date of a public inquiry into the dispute.