Can he cope with Harriet, Mandy and Ed at the same time?
Just as every Prime Minister needs a Willie, as Margaret Thatcher famously noted, so the present incumbent believes he needs Balls. She was right; he may not be.
While Balls isnâ€™t Brownâ€™s deputy, he is almost certainly his closest political confidante within the cabinet, his position unassailable and his views taken very seriously by Brown. Alongside him, Peter Mandelson having returned to government and risen to the lofty ranks of First Secretary of State is Deputy Prime Minister in all but name.
However, even though Brown clearly recognises that he needs Mandy, I find it difficult to believe that he is sufficiently trusted inside Number Ten to fulfil that role as effectively as a PM really needs it done. He was out of the game a long time in Brussels and before that, his closeness to Blair means heâ€™ll never have the proven loyalty that someone like Balls can point to.
Then thereâ€™s Harriet Harman, elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Sheâ€™s not even been given the honorific title of Deputy PM but her position within Labour, bolstered by having fought and won a genuine election, gives her a latitude that no other minister can enjoy and enables her to deputise for him officially, at things like PMQâ€™s.
Three deputies is to my mind too many. It creates conflict, delay and factionalism, especially if at least two of them still have the ambition to become leader themselves and so are positioning for a future election.
In a review of a biography of William Whitelaw, John Campbell gave this explanation of why Margaret Thatcher was so appreciative of Whitelaw:
“..every PM needs an authoritative deputy to chair committees, resolve disputes and ward off trouble. Also, that a PM needs one senior colleague with no ambition of his own to guard his (or her) back against the plots of jealous rivalsâ€.
Mandelson comes close to fulfilling both objectives – but not close enough. He doesnâ€™t have the mandate of a Harman or the trust of a Balls. He performed sterling work for Brown in keeping things calm after the European elections but only because those two were working to the same end. In short, he lacks the necessary authority.
John Prescott, for all his many failings as a minister, was an effective deputy leader for most of his time because he was largely unchallenged in that role, able to keep the peace between Blair and Brown and proved his worth to Blair in his instinctive understanding of the traditional Labour movement. Itâ€™s notable how once Prescottâ€™s authority waned, the relationship between Blair and Brown broke down to new depths. Likewise, Thatcherâ€™s train came off the rails after she lost the balancing influence of Whitelaw whereas Major survived through to 1997 in no small part because Heseltine genuinely played the role of a loyal deputy – and no-one else did.
With no effective deputy, a leader can become erratic, authoritarian and mistake-prone; with too many, they get pulled in different directions and the government or party loses cohesion, especially when trying to regain the initiative.
It seems to me that the government has a structural weakness here which is likely to impede any recovery. Brown might not be alone though: the Conservatives have not fully sorted out their own deputy leadership issue, with both Hague and Osborne playing aspects of the role. However, ahead and in opposition, the matter is less pressing.