John Rentoul: The brothers will keep Balls at bay

David's confidence and Ed's desire to appear confident may pave the way to No 11 for Yvette Cooper

Share
Related Topics

Whichever brother wins the Labour leadership, what will he do with the other? I will come to that in a moment, but first there is a more difficult question, which might be called the Maria Problem. Imagine, if you will, the victorious Miliband surrounded by nuns, asking them, "How do you solve a problem like Ed Balls?"!

In his interview with this newspaper today, Balls renews his bid for the post of shadow chancellor by promising, in effect, not to use it as Gordon Brown did, as a base for his ambition to succeed to the leadership. And, "to be fair" to Balls, to use a phrase that Tony Blair over-uses horribly in his memoir, there are important differences between him and Brown. The first is that Balls will have fought a leadership election and lost it, probably quite badly. It is quite possible that Balls will come fifth of the five candidates. The second is that he does not share Brown's psychological flaws: he does not behave so badly in meetings and he is at ease with members of the public. As we discovered last week, he is the only candidate who can accompany a student with an electric guitar on the drums. But there are similarities – indeed, continuities – too, and Balls as shadow chancellor would replicate the tensions between TB and GB even in different psychological forms.

It is a difficult decision, for either brother. Balls is the most intellectually able economist on the Labour side in the House of Commons. His recent speech on the deficit was praised not only by Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan, two of the heaviest of the Financial Times's weights, but by Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London. True, his argument that Alistair Darling planned to cut the deficit too fast by halving it in four years, unnecessarily complicates the Labour response to George Osborne's Budget, which plans to cut the deficit altogether in five years. But Balls has proved to be the most formidable critic of the coalition's economic policy.

Yet the media story of his appointment as shadow chancellor will be, if David Miliband is leader, the perpetuation of the Blair-Brown divide for another generation, or, if Ed Miliband wins, the war at the heart of the Brown supremacy. That is why I think that neither brother would actually appoint him to the Treasury. David because he has the intellectual confidence to do without him; Ed Miliband because he will be obsessed with appearing to have the confidence to do without him. Whichever brother becomes leader, it may be that he will make Yvette Cooper shadow chancellor and offer her husband the post of shadow home secretary.

This fulfils three large objectives of shadow cabinet-making. One is to have a credible woman in one of the "great offices of state"; another is to have a "tough on crime and immigration" message; the third is to keep Balls away from the Treasury. Inevitably, the third objective is somewhat compromised by the marital connection, but Cooper is a strong personality in her own right. Not to everyone's taste as a television performer, perhaps, but I recall her role in prompting Harriet Harman's reply to Osborne's Budget speech in July, which suggested that she was quick enough to find the weak point in real time. (It was that Sir Alan Budd's independent forecast was for lower growth as a result of the Budget.)

That, in turn, poses the question of a post for Alan Johnson, the present shadow home secretary who is, I am told, running for re-election to the Shadow Cabinet. I do not know about Ed Miliband, and doubt if Johnson would stick around long if he won. But I suspect that David Miliband would want a big role for him, possibly shadowing Nick Clegg but without being called Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, which might put out of joint the nose of Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader. (Jack Straw, who is retiring from the Shadow Cabinet, currently rejoices in the formal title of Acting Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, as well as Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.)

Having solved the problem of Ed Balls, the winning brother then needs to find a slot for his sibling. Here the temptation will be to leave him where he is. If David Miliband wins, he could offer his brother an expanded green portfolio, covering transport as well as energy under the heading of climate change. Or he could give him health, knowing that in opposition it would be safe to have someone who was not a moderniser there, and that Andrew Lansley offers an easy target that even his brother could hit.

The important point about the reshuffle is that it will not take place until the middle of next month, after the Shadow Cabinet elections. The delay means that there will not be such a premium on appointing defeated candidates to high positions in the name of party unity. Indeed, there will be no requirement to appoint Diane Abbott to anything, as she is unlikely to be elected to the Shadow Cabinet. And it is quite possible that Ed Miliband, if unsuccessful in the leadership contest, would poll poorly among Labour MPs.

As for Andy Burnham, he could go to education, where a moderniser really is needed to oppose Michael Gove on something more than "cuts". Last week's decision by Labour MPs to continue the tradition of electing senior spokespeople in opposition was a bad sign of the durability of left-wing conservatism; even worse was the decision to elect a chief whip to serve a full parliament, in effect with a power base separate from the leader. But a strong leader still has enough scope to be able to weld an effective opposition from the disparate talents available.

It is a tribute to the intellectual force that is Ed Balls that the new leader of the Labour Party will have a bigger and more far-reaching problem deciding what to do with the candidate who came fourth or fifth than with the runner-up.

John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific