Steve Richards: Explosive memos? Calm down, dears

This is an exercise aimed at damaging Ed Balls. Yet, the documents are not incriminating

The rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is back like a sleeping monster that awakes every few months to wreak destructive havoc on the party they led.

The latest re-awakening takes the form of leaked memos that once belonged to Ed Balls and are now published in The Daily Telegraph. The monstrous activity is to do with the present and not the past. This is an exercise aimed at damaging Balls now, rather than triggering a further historic seminar on Blair and Brown, the most familiar theme in British politics.

And yet the documents are not incriminating. Indeed, the context in which they were written shows why it would be more of a shock if such memos had not been composed as Labour's long internal battle reached a dénouement. They were part of the post-2005 election frenzy. Blair had already announced he was standing down. The key questions were when and in what circumstances. This was the period when Blair was following his reform programme with resolute determination and with the enthusiastic support of David Cameron. Labour was sinking in the polls. Not surprisingly, Brown and his entourage sought an early prime ministerial departure, and one done in a way that gave the superficial impression of unity. Ironically, in the light of what has followed, Brown was obsessively determined to avoid accusations of regicide.

There is a wider context too. Brown was caught out when John Smith died suddenly in 1994. He had not planned for a leadership contest. Blair would have won in any circumstances in 1994, but Brown and his allies resolved to be ready next time. This is hardly a surprise. Imagine if Brown had not prepared as the prime ministerial vacancy came into tantalising view. That would have been weirder and more newsworthy. Plotting is a part of politics. There were endless plots against Harold Wilson and one or two against John Major. Margaret Thatcher was never sure what Michael Heseltine was up to. This plot happened to be almost successful in the sense that Blair departed in 2007 and, very superficially, there was a smooth transition.

Of course, these memos are not viewed through the prism of the plotters finally achieving their aim – highly unusual in the long history of political plotting – but from the perspective of election defeat and the fact that senior plotters around Brown lead Labour now. This is a false perspective. The memos were written when no one knew what would follow.

They are interesting for different reasons. There is a widespread assumption that there were no policy differences between the two courts. It was all about insane ambition. There is no question that a dangerous dose of ambition played its part, but Brown's memos show a concern about markets in health and education, a preoccupation with addressing poverty, a quite perceptive reading of David Cameron's politics and the tentative framing of an alternative. The themes are all still relevant today as a bewildered Labour Party wonders what to do next.

Similarly in relation to the now fashionable assumption that Brown let public spending rip against the wishes of Blair, it is illuminating to read a memo suggesting that the then chancellor was alarmed by the expenditure implications of Blairite initiatives, from ID cards to city academies. Like most prime ministers, Blair was keen on restraining public spending in general and demanding billions of additional pounds for his favourite policies.

But even if the memos are interesting, they are not explosive. John Major once noted that if he made a speech in Parliament, no one noticed. If he wrote a memo with the same words and leaked it, all hell would break loose. Part of the frenzy reflects a sense that we are seeing something we are not supposed to see, even if we already know, more or less, what is revealed. Politics is changing fast. Several senior politicians have told me that in the age of Twitter and blogs they work on the assumption that nothing is off the record any more, that if they say anything interesting in private, it will become public. Anyone with any sense will stop writing or emailing before very long, although in this case Balls could not have been obsessively protective of these documents if he left them in his old departmental office after Labour's election defeat. Perhaps he did not consider them to be excessively significant.

In one sense they are not. In another they reflect and impact on the current troubled Labour party. Labour has hardly started to come to terms with the rivalries of Blair and Brown, the duo that dominated their party to a greater extent than Thatcher did hers. The duo hovered over last summer's leadership contest with Balls suffering from his association with Brown and David Miliband from his with Blair. Ed Miliband sought space by somehow or other distancing himself from Brown as well as Blair, and acquired definition through the leap. In different ways, all three leading candidates were defined by Blair and Brown, as Tory candidates were shaped by their views of Thatcher in their leadership contests.

The duo continues to hover. In particular, Blair admirers are prominent in Labour, the Coalition and the media. Ed Miliband cannot ignore them and is understandably wary of taking them on. Yet he needs to move his party on from the recent past. The same dilemma faced Brown when he became leader. He did not solve it. Can his successor move on from both his predecessors? That is the key topical question posed by documents that capture a moment from the recent past.