Comment: Ed Balls’ biggest problem may be his wife

Cooper's promise could block Ball's ambition.

By Dr Matthew Ashton 

As the political vultures continue to circle around Ed Miliband's leadership, thoughts are already beginning to turn to who his successor might be. The obvious person next in line to the throne is Ed Balls, but despite the fact that he obviously wants the job there are a host of reasons that make him an unlikely choice. Yesterday he seemed to go out of his way to upset the unions over the issue of cuts and the need for a continued pay freeze. His desire to prove that Labour have a 'credible' economic policy could potentially mean they just end up mimicking Conservative spending plans while alienating their own base.

Ball's problems go deeper than that though. While no-one doubts his intelligence or political experience, many question his judgement. The moment he starts attacking the banks or talking about social justice, anyone with access to Google can find speeches he made before the credit crunch praising the banking industry and financial sector for their contribution to the British economy. The fact that he was also Gordon Brown's right hand man and economic advisor for so many years doesn't help either. He was working for Brown when our former chancellor made some of his most catastrophic mistakes, such as claiming to have ended 'boom and bust', the PFI fiasco and the decision to sell of Britain's gold supplies just before prices started to go through the roof.

At the risk of sounding like a sixth-former there's also his name. In an ideal world something like that shouldn't matter, but politics these days is largely about perception and I suspect that many comedians and satirists will continue to see it as an easy punchline.

Ball's biggest problem, however, might well be his wife. He's been married to Yvette Cooper for over a decade now, and they're the first married couple to hold Cabinet positions at the same time. Yvette Cooper is widely seen as an extremely competent member of the shadow Cabinet and is in many ways better liked than her husband (or, at least, has fewer enemies). Many wanted her to run for the vacant leadership position in 2010 but she quickly ruled herself out. Given the fact that her husband was running this was perfectly understandable. As well as the obvious domestic tensions this would have caused, it would have also turned the contest into even more of a soap-opera than it already was. Since then I've spoken to several political figures who privately argue that she'd have been a better choice than either of the two Eds.

Marriages between politicians always have these issues, although rarely to quite the same extent. On paper at least it makes perfect sense for politicians to marry each other. MPs spend a lot of time together at the Houses of Parliament and who better to understand the stress and strains of the job? The downside is that politicians are naturally ambitious so it's always going to gall slightly if one climbs the greasy pole higher or more quickly than the other.

The sad truth of it is that very few political marriages retain career parity over time. Nick and Ann Winterton spent most of their careers on the backbenches so it didn't matter quite so much, but Peter and Virginia Bottemley are a good case of where one outstripped the other. In Gyles Brandreth's political diaries he writes about Peter commenting that political marriages can only have one star at any one time. Now this might not always be true, but it's impacted on most political marriages so far.

The case of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper is even more fraught with difficulties as they're both so successful. Even assuming that Balls did become leader and then prime minister, it immediately leaves him with the problem of whether he puts his wife in the Cabinet and risk accusations of favouritism, especially as he'd most likely have to give her one of the three big jobs. He'd obviously argue that she got there on merit but that won't stop of the media or the Westminster whisper-mill going into overdrive.

What would happen then if he underperforms as leader but she shines? Alternatively what if she runs into trouble or makes mistakes? Normally a range of factors govern whether a prime minister backs a gaffe or scandal prone minister or not. In this case it would make it almost impossible for him to sack or demote her without his own judgement being called into question. Certainly the press would have a field day. However you look at it, it seems to be an impossible conundrum which is why the Labour party would probably be wise to think long and hard about it. Whether Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper can continue to square this circle remains to be seen.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.