Matthew Norman: So is Ed Balls ready for the big fight?

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The Independent Online

What golden days these are for British boxing. Everyone agrees there's never been a more glorious age for our pugilists. Led by Joe Calzaghe, who fights the senescent American great, Bernard Hopkins, in Vegas over the weekend, they bestride the weight divisions like colossi.

It's always been the New Labour way, in the quest for the crucial middle-aged, fatty-glued-to-Sky-Sports-down-the-boozer demographic, to leap aboard sporting bandwagons. We all fondly recall Mr Tony Blair's tale of watching Wor Jackie Milburn, and who cares if it proved what Hillary Clinton, the Tigress of Tuzla, calls a misspeaking?

The point is that, by enticing the George Washington of Connaught Square into a rare fib, it illustrated the political value of embracing the popular sport du jour. So with the England football team in terminal decline, it comes as small surprise to find two of our more ambitious Cabinet ministers getting ready to rumble. Indeed, not since Ricky Gervais's contentious, Comic Relief split decision over Grant Bovey has there been as mouth-watering a potential bout as the one that nearly took place between Jack Straw and Ed Balls.

As ever with this mob, you can only gauge a rumour's veracity by the vehemence of the denials. Asked whether Straw threatened to punch the chunky overseer of our children's futures to punish his rudeness, spokespersons for the pair variously dismissed it as "garbage", "malicious gossip" and "completely without foundation". It definitely happened, then, the regrets being that the incident came after a Cabinet meeting rather than during one, and that not a blow was ever thrown.

Had it kicked off, all the smart money would have been on Mr Balls, the heavier man by a couple of stone and the younger by 20 years. This is not to write off the plucky Justice Secretary, though, for while he may remind us more of Charles Hawtrey than Mike Tyson, he is a great survivor. Here he is at 61, after enduring various demotions and humiliations from Mr Blair, still dreaming and scheming about the grandest title of all.

If Jack Straw is an old man in a hurry, Ed Balls looks like a young one in a tearing, madcap, hurtling dash. And can you blame either of them for the haste, with the incumbent so nearly ready for the taking? It should be said here that we Don King manqués of the press drastically overhype the mortal peril in which troubled PMs find themselves.

One notable dunce (me) predicted Mr Blair's imminent demise at least half a dozen times, but thanks to a combination of his own slippery genius and Gordon's terror of exposing himself to a sucker punch, he somehow kept buggering on. One reason for his longevity, I suspect, was the depressing dearth of internecine warfare among his ministers, an oddity of Blair Cabinets being how unified and mannerly they were. Perhaps the unending struggle for supremacy at the top left no energy for skirmishing lower down the line, just as the Cold War kept the lid on bubbling global tensions – murderous themselves, certainly, but hardly Mutually Assured Destruction – that erupted once the Berlin Wall had gone.

Whatever the explanation, Mr Blair was blessed in having a solitary, clearly visible challenger he knew to be too craven and dithery to go for the kill openly. And when finally his fingers were prised away from the No 10 door knocker, it was far too late for Gordon to distance himself from the economic chickens now bringing the spectre of fiscal avian flu with them as they come home to roost.

Those who thought a sick economy would help Gordon on the old "hang on to nurse..." principle see from the polls that this is not so. Indeed, as with global warming, each fresh financial report makes the apparently apocalyptic one from yesterday look mild. The 4.5 per cent monthly house price dive is the latest in a sequence resembling the decalogue of plagues visited on Pharaoh by Jehovah.

If on May 1 Labour tanks in the council elections and Boris Johnson wins in London, there will be scores of Labour MPs, not all in marginals or on the back benches, squealing "Mayday, Mayday". But is there anyone in the Cabinet to answer the distress call? If they didn't realise it in the autumn, when Gordon squeezed his imbecilic false pledge of Basra troop reductions and the bottling of the election into four catastrophic days, they know now for sure that they are being led by a man as well suited to leadership as Frank Bruno is to partner Darcey Bussell in Swan Lake.

The thing likeliest to save them, or at least restrict the Tories to being the largest party in a hung parliament, is a coup d'etat. It would be vicious, bloody and riven with mortal dangers, both for assassin and party. But this is the world's most brutal combat sport, and as Jonathan Aitken told Alan Clark when a sitting British PM last faced a credible internal challenge... that's politics, baby!

The choice for Messrs Balls and Straw, and other potential contenders, couldn't be plainer. They can engage in departmental turf wars, threaten to put one another's lights out and in many other ways manoeuvre for position in the expectation that Gordon will go swiftly after a general election hiding. Or they can put their careers on the line now in the cause of averting the approaching disaster. Mr Straw can only become caretaker by default, David Miliband's failure to challenge a year ago suggests a geekier version of Michael Portillo in his manifestation as installer of unused phone lines, Alan Johnson doubts he has the brains for it, and a solid PMQs debut hardly establishes Harriet Harman as a leader in waiting.

And side-splitting as it would be to watch Charlie Clarke or Alan Milburn have a bash, there is a palpable distinction between an effective stalking horse and an equine beast with a one-way ticket to Uhu land stuck beneath its bridle. Meanwhile, there is a bumptiousness and intellectual self-confidence about Mr Balls suggesting that he may be the one to contemplate what would, given his history as Gordon's protégé, be an act of barely precedented political treachery. As chief orchestrator of all those Blairicidal rebellions that never quite materialised, no one could see in more crystalline clarity the consequences of failing to strike against a fatally wounded PM. His mentor and friend (or ex-friend as rumour, still unfortunately undenied, has it) is a living but rapidly ailing lesson in the perils of cowardly procrastination in top level politics.

But does Balls have the stomach for the fight? Does anyone? Or are they all such scaredy cats that they will vainly attempt to defy Joe Louis's old dictum by trying to run and hide from the rapidly hardening reality that the only direction in which Gordon can lead them now is towards the opposition benches?

Norman named Columnist of the Year

"Hugely readable, surprising and often a hilarious writer across a wide variety of subjects," were the words used by the judges in naming Matthew Norman as Columnist of the Year in the prestigious 2008 British Press Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Tuesday. The awards were presented by the television journalist Jon Snow, who commented on the quality of a shortlist of seven, including The Independent's Johann Hari.

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