No one who has observed British politics in recent decades needs any reminding about the fraught relationship that can exist between a Prime Minister and a Chancellor. Whether there is something in the water at the Cabinet table or perhaps an exaggerated respect for the office of Chancellor, a tension seems to be inherent in the comparative power wielded by the politician who leads the party and the politician who holds the purse strings. Nor is that tension unique to the party in government.
Rumblings in Westminster as the summer recess draws to a close suggest that, while the focus has been on George Osborne and the considerable potential for rifts within the Coalition, the Opposition front bench has quietly experienced its own difficulties. The two Eds – Miliband and Balls – it is said, are finding it harder to get along, with the shadow Chancellor becoming increasingly domineering and trying to dictate a more permissive line on banking regulation than Mr Miliband would, if left to himself.
Now it is hardly news that the Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor are very different people, nor that they were rivals for the job Mr Miliband now holds. Indeed, there was much speculation at the time of his victory that these differences might leave Mr Balls out in the cold. Some saw Mr Miliband's decision to keep Mr Balls on the Opposition front bench, then to name him shadow Chancellor, as courageous. A more pragmatic explanation was that the Labour leader felt his past, and perhaps future, rival would more dangerous outside the tent than in. Plus, the appointment signalled that Mr Miliband wanted to unify the party after the bruising leadership contest and its unpredicted result.
With the shadow of the poisonous Blair-Brown relationship still hanging heavy over the party, however, there were also risks for Mr Miliband in appointing an ambitious shadow Chancellor with whom he might not see eye to eye. If present rumours are correct, and they are certainly credible, it has taken 18 months, give or take, for the disputes to reach a head.
In which case, it is less Mr Cameron – on the threshold of a mid-term reshuffle – who has a Chancellor problem than Mr Miliband, and the Labour leader needs to address it sooner rather than later. That the Blair-Brown experience lies so recently in the past should convince him that doing nothing could be yet more dangerous than doing something –but what?
Clearly, Mr Miliband cannot allow the Blair-Brown history to repeat itself without undercutting his own position and that of his party. Clearly, too, there will come a time, if it is not already here, when the effort needed to project a united Labour front becomes counterproductive. With a nine-point poll lead and erstwhile critics starting to admit that they might have misjudged him, Mr Miliband is in a much stronger position entering the conference season than he was a year ago. Indeed, with the Coalition languishing as it is, he is in a stronger position than he might be again.
It would make sense for him to use this advantage to have it out with Mr Balls, and discuss frankly whether there is room for them both, policy-wise, in the same team. If they can agree, then Mr Balls may stay, with full acceptance of who is boss. If not, Mr Miliband must cut Mr Balls adrift and try to limit the fallout. The economy is the political battleground of today, and Labour cannot afford the perception that it speaks with forked tongue.