Guardian profile of Yvette Cooper, the UK Treasury minister who had ME

November 28, 2008

This appeared in The Guardian on Friday, November 28. Profile written by ALLEGRA STRATTON.

There may be a reason why the chief secretary to the Treasury, Yvette Cooper, is bullish about the government's electoral prospects despite a downturn. Twelve years ago the then 27-year-old was a leader writer on the Independent but was clearly so taken with a particular thesis that she strayed from the leader writer's usual anonymity to make the same argument twice in less than six months before the 1997 general election.

What role, asked Cooper – shortly to become Labour candidate for Pontefract and Castleford – did the economy play in securing an election victory for an incumbent government? The received wisdom then was that incumbents needed economic optimism, but Cooper's columns drew on research that argued this to be bunkum. That thesis may be at the back of her mind now.

Cooper is the first lady. First-class degree and, according to an email that arrives from a proud adviser, first minister ever to take maternity leave, first female chief secretary to the Treasury and one half of the first cabinet married couple. When Alistair Darling's stock has been low, Labour aides have been heard to add: "First female chancellor?"

Once, she was supposed to have been openly ambitious: as a teenage daughter of a trade union leader she would reportedly tell anyone who would listen at her Hampshire comprehensive that she wanted to be prime minister. Though she denies this, she's probably been a policy wonk for longer than she's been able to vote.

The Guardian's Lucy Ward travelled around America with her in 1990 – Cooper researching abortion rights, Ward folk songs – and Cooper had to nurse her friend through a fear of flying. "She tried absolutely everything to distract me when the plane took off," Ward said, "including devising an economic analysis of swimming pool ownership as we flew over America." She would be back in America fairly frequently, both to study at Harvard and gatecrash Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign trail.

The Labour aristocracy are hazy about how she entered their lives, but Patricia Hewitt remembers a "gorgeous but quite fragile" young woman arriving as an intern in John Smith's office. Labour economic adviser Lord Eatwell said: "I remember being in a discussion about I don't know what and suddenly a young woman blurted out: ‘But how could you think that?' I thought I was the great panjandrum … but she had developed that nice intellectual irreverence that one learns in America. That's what I always think when I think of Yvette, her saying: ‘But how could you think that?'".

Harriet Harman gave Cooper her first full-time job in politics, but though Cooper stayed long enough to do what Harman says was the research on how long-term unemployment makes returning to work harder, someone poached her. Harman said: "Gordon kept coming in the room and smiling at her. I remember thinking, ‘Don't smile at Yvette. Don't you smile. She's mine.' And then I thought, ‘Blimey, I know where this is going.' I felt like physically standing between them".

Labour's high command may be hazy about the details of Cooper's CV, since around this time she suffered ME and "disappeared" for a while, off sick for as much as a year. By the mid-1990s she was at the Independent and had met Ed Balls. A colleague remembers being surprised when he realised she was a Labour activist. "It seems funny to say it now but she didn't strike me as being intensely political. It was only when we learnt she was organising for her local Labour party that I got it. I am still slightly surprised that she and Ed both turned out to be so ultra-ambitious."

No such surprise from those who have faced her across the house in the 11 years she's been an MP. "Yvette is truly partisan and tenacious," a Tory who has faced her at the dispatch box says. "But a nicer person than she gets credit for. And a better debater than Ed."

Hilary Armstrong was on the national executive committee and remembers that Cooper did not get the first seat she tried for. "She was very downhearted and it was reportedly a struggle to get her to go for another seat."

Cooper has a reputation for straight talking that sometimes overruns, as when she exploded on the Today programme when her then shadow, Michael Gove, made a common or garden political point.

What next? An aide says that on their office wall is a photo of every chief secretary to the Treasury, "and they are all male … Interestingly, you would know most of them from what they did later on – Barnett, Brittan, Major, Lamont, Portillo, Darling …" One day, will we know Cooper best from what she goes on to do?


Born Inverness, 1969

Personal life Married to minister Ed Balls; two daughters and one son

Education Balliol College, Oxford, Harvard University, London School of Economics

Work Researcher for the late John Smith; adviser to Bill Clinton presidential campaign 1992; leader writer for the Independent 1995-97; Labour MP, Pontefract and Castleford and Knottingley, since 1997; undersecretary of state for public health 1999-2002; parliamentary secretary Lord Chancellor's department 2002-03; housing minister 2007; chief secretary to the Treasury 2008.


An interview with Yvette Cooper by Jane Colby, executive director of the Young ME Sufferers Trust, appeared in the ME Association's quarterly magazine ME Essential earler this year.

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