Earlier this week, I suggested that one of the possible hatchet men to doom Gordon Brown to a half-term mediocrity as Prime Minister could be his most loyal lieutenant, the current Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls. While this opinion was dismissed by several social Politicos, it now seems that such speculation may not have been as absurd as some first thought, with several pieces emerging in the media highlighting current internal meanderings. Word is that Balls is already jockeying for position in a post-Brown administration, possibly even planning a run for leadership itself.
Oxford and Harvard educated, Balls has long been considered as Brown’s golden boy – a senior feature writer at the Financial Times at the age of 23, before being picked out by the then shadow Chancellor to become his senior economic adviser. Elected to the Labour stronghold of Normanton at the 2005 election and swiftly appointed to the Cabinet, he finally cemeted his place at the centre of Brown’s Government team by being tasked with the beefed-up Department of Children, Schools and Families upon Brown’s coronation last summer. Incidentally, while some were initially surprised that Balls was not elevated to the Chancellorship himself, Alistair Darling’s current difficulties would explain more clearly than any commentator the extent to which Brown has protected his protégé well in advance.
But what of a leadership bid? Educating Rita syndrome suggests that the pupil will always eventually outstrip the teacher, and Balls is nobody's fool - with tumbling polls suggesting a Conservative victory at the next election and precious few ideas or policies emerging from the Labour benches, Balls appears to be looking after No. 1.
His recent tacking to left on issues such as admissions policies, faith schools, examination reform and social exclusions have fanned rumours that he is toadying up to the left of the Labour party to present himself as a “more Brownite than Brown” candidate. But Balls may need to be more subtle than he has been of late. Such a swift rise to the top does not typically teach an aspiring Minister the importance of patience, and he has already made several notable enemies on the way. In particular, wresting the “respect agenda” from Jacqui Smith is hardly likely to earn him any bouquets from the Home Secretary.
That he is talented is undeniable, but reports increasingly emerge that he is less than popular among his peers, possessing an impatient and abrasive air when dealing with fellow Ministers and civil servants (a foible shared with his benefactor) – hardly a formula for leadership. Also sharing with the current ex-PM-to-be, he has been described as arrogant and patronising (not unlike many of the anti-faith school brigade, who incessantly seem to know what is best for the children of working class families, particularly those from an immigrant background). The Daily Mail even reported this week that mild-mannered Jack Straw was so irked by the overbearing manner of the Schools Minister following a disagreement over youth justice policy that he threatened to punch him – can you imagine anyone within Cabinet making a similar threat to Tony Blair? (Gordon Brown being the obvious exception...)
Most unpredictable all is of course the current Prime Minister. While Brown himself has been a wounded beast of late, he is still the man to be pulling the levers for some time yet. Colleagues past and present have paid testament to the loyalty of the former Chancellor but even loyalty has its limits, and Brown is notorious for bitter lifelong vendettas against anyone he feels has crossed him. Brown’s burning enmity of Tony Blair following the latter’s election as Labour leader in 1995 is legendary – how would Brown react to the possibility of a similar betrayal by his closest aide?
It seems to this author that building relationships with some of the big beasts within Cabinet could well grease the way to a realistic leadership bid, or at least, Cabinet survival under the next leader. Building ridges with the likes of Smith is a must – just look at the extent to which Anne Widdecombe managed to savage Michael Howard's 1997 bid - and while Blairites such as David Miliband and Alan Johnson may once have sat on the other side of the fences during Labour’s decade-long civil war, demonstrating unifying abilities could yet prove the key to securing the prize.
So, a bit of keeping friends close but your enemies closer could be due. That, and don’t wake the baby…