Tonight’s Telegraph splash is in one aspect sensational: how on earth did they get hold of Ed Balls’ private correspondence? (UPDATE: He left the documents in his old desk at the Department of Education. Sir Gus O’Donnell is set to order an inquiry into the leak, according to Politicshome.)
In another, it is less so: The letters show that the Brownites were agitating to wrest Tony Blair’s hands from the keys to 10 Downing Street six years ago, if not earlier; this we already knew. Not least because it was a very public Brownite coup by half a dozen government aides, led by Tom Watson, who finally held the gun to Blair’s head and forced him to put a timeline on his departure. The poisonous relationships at the heart of New Labour has been well documented by Andrew Rawnsley and countless others.
Nevertheless, the papers make a fun read, not least to see Balls’ handwriting and bizarre doodles, etc. And the story will do no favours to either Balls or Ed Miliband, both implicated – Miliband to a much lesser extent – in the plotting to promote Brown.
The interesting question, however, is how today’s key relationship at the heart of Labour is faring; are Balls and Miliband getting on well? Bear in mind that Miliband last autumn resisted giving Balls the job of shadow chancellor, instead promoting Alan Johnson – despite his uncertain grasp of economics – creating a situation that lasted, uncomfortably, only a few months.
I wrote on January 21 that one shadow cabinet member feared that the relationship had the potential to be worse than Blair-Brown, given that Balls used to treat Miliband as the “office boy“.
Since then I have heard various reports of those first few awkward months before Balls won the shadow chancellorship. There is no doubt that Balls was unhappy in his shadow Home Office brief, and was at the very least “detached” and “uninterested” as he sat around the table with his senior colleagues. Another member of the shadow cabinet tells me that Balls was in fact “contemptuous” towards Miliband, showing him little courtesy. The Miliband team were particularly worried, perhaps unduly, about what tricks Balls might get up to during his paternity leave last November.
That, by most accounts, is no longer the case. Instead Balls has been “engaged” and much more collegiate, even supportive towards Miliband. Attempts have been made to merge the two teams, although not wholly with success. “Before Christmas Balls was murderous, now he is less murderous,” is the black humour joke of one Brownite. One neutral Labour MP observed to me that Balls has been seeking in the last few weeks to act in a more “statesmanlike” manner, for example suppressing his urge to shout at the prime minister during PMQs.
It was interesting to observe that in last week’s Labourlist poll he came out as the most popular frontbencher (among Labour supporters) with 77 per cent thinking he is doing a good or excellent job, against 41 per cent for Miliband. A poll of non-Labour voters could, of course, offer a different perspective.