One of the most entertaining blog threads I have read over the past day or two arose from this post on Political Betting in which Mike Smithson posits the idea of Ed Balls as the next leader of the Labour Party. By the time it came to my attention, there were already 200-odd comments on the thread, so I thought I would give my thoughts here instead.
Part of what makes PB.com one of the few truly great UK blogs is Mike's habit of posing questions about unlikely political outcomes. Recent examples have included: What would happen if John McCain died before the Republican Convention, and could Al Gore yet emerge as the Democratic candidate if their August convention is deadlocked.
Although these are the kind of long-odds scenarios which fascinate betting types, they are not serious political questions. For the Democrats to turn to a loser like Gore when it has two potential winners in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be a bit like the FA being unable to decide between Capello and Mourinho for England manager, and turning to Kevin Keegan instead.
The idea of Ed Balls as Prime Minister almost falls into the same category. To my mind, and that of many other observers both inside and outside the Labour Party, it is a manifest absurdity. But it is nevertheless apparent - not least from this Sunday Telegraph piece, that it is an idea to which some very influential people are giving serious consideration.
The theory is predicated on Gordon Brown winning the next election, promoting Balls to Chancellor, and building him up as the natural and obvious successor before handing over at some point in the next Parliament. The Telegraph piece suggests the current "obvious successor," David Miliband, does not really want the job, although I don't think that can necessarily be deduced from his failure to challenge Gordon last year.
Why, then, do I take the view that Balls is inconceivable as Labour leader and Prime Minister? Well, it's certainly nothing personal. Whenever I dealt with Ed Balls in my Lobby days - usually when he was doing the post-Budget briefing from the Press Gallery - he was no less courteous or helpful to me than any other lobby hack.
It's more an issue that I - and others - have with his extremely aggressive personal style. While this was a useful if occasionally counter-productive trait for a spin doctor seeking to ensure his master's key message got across, it always struck me as ill-befitting a frontline political role, and it does not surprise me in the least that Balls's TV appearances have invariably been so catastrophic.
The fact that Balls is being seriously spoken of as a potential Prime Minister is probably indicative of the lack of real talent in the much-vaunted younger generation of Cabinet ministers. They are all either too geeky (the Milibands), too lightweight (Purnell, Burnham) or, in the case of Balls and Douglas Alexander, much better cast as backroom boys.
The one exception, and the one current member of the Cabinet who, in my view, has both the intellect and the emotional intelligence to be a successful political leader in the 21st century is Balls' wife, Yvette Cooper, although I also think there are two more outside the current Cabinet in Jon Cruddas and Alan Milburn.
So far as Cooper is concerned, the question to my mind is not whether she could do the job, but whether her overweeningly arrogant and ambitious other half will let her.