Straw 'threatened to hit Balls' in Cabinet bust-up

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Cabinet ministers have been accused of "jockeying for position" in case Gordon Brown loses the next general election.

Tensions at the highest level of the Government surfaced yesterday with an astonishing claim that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, threatened to punch Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, during a turf war – an allegation dismissed by aides as "malicious gossip", "garbage" and "completely without foundation".

Mr Straw was reported to have had a bust-up with Mr Balls after a cabinet meeting over who was in charge of youth crime. The Justice Secretary was said to have complained that he had never been spoken to so rudely by a colleague in public and was not going to put up with it.

Insiders said that, though there had been a heated debate over youth crime, it had happened last September. They insisted that the two ministers were now working well together.

Mr Balls, who is Mr Brown's closest political ally, is the Brown camp's chosen successor. But he could face opposition in a future Labour leadership contest from cabinet colleagues including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary.

Critics have accused Mr Balls of playing to the Labour gallery by attacking faith schools and other schools accused of breaching rules on admissions by seeking donations from parents. There are also claims that he interferes in other ministers' departments.

Friends of Mr Balls say he is a victim of "dirty tricks" by potential leadership rivals. They point out that Mr Brown gave him joint responsibility with other cabinet ministers for issues such as youth crime, child poverty and children's health when he created the Department for Children, Schools and Families last June.

One senior Labour figure said: "People are jockeying for position. Ministers would be better advised to get on with their day jobs and to make sure we win the election rather than plan for a defeat."

There are fears that the cabinet rumblings could undermine Mr Brown as he tries to halt Labour's slide in the opinion polls and limit the scale of losses expected at the local authority elections in England and Wales on 1 May.

There has also been a turf war between Mr Straw and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. The Home Office was split in two last year, with some of its functions including prisons and probation transferred to the new Ministry of Justice.

The manoeuvring will dismay Labour MPs, who are gloomy about the party's prospects. Backbenchers are threatening revolts over the decision to scrap the 10p lower rate of income tax and plans to extend from 28 to 42 days the period for which suspected terrorists can be detained without charge.