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COMMENT & ANALYSIS: His master's voice; ROB M ERRICK O UR M AN I N W ESTMINSTER.

PLANS for Merseyside to be run by a directly-elected mayor with radical new powers ran into a formidable obstacle yesterday - Prime Minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown.

A report by a little-known political think-tank attacking the drive to create powerful "city-regions" would have raised few eyebrows but for the identity of its author.

His name is Ed Balls, Mr Brown's former adviser and protegA, who will almost certainly be Chancellor soon after the current one moves next door, presumably next year.

It was Mr Balls who coined the tortuous phrase "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory" to sum up - to much hilarity - Mr Brown's belief in supply-side economics.

Their closeness was famously mocked by Michael Heseltine, who said of the policy: "It's not Brown's - it's Balls."

Sure enough, within 12 months of becoming an MP in May last year, Mr Balls was back in the Treasury as a minister.

Therefore, we must assume Mr Balls is speaking his master's words when his report for the New Local Government Network (NLGN) warns the city-regions policy is a mistake.

The NLGN study argues handing powers over transport, skills and regeneration to an elected mayor for Merseyside would undermine the regional development agency.

Furthermore, it says, it is a mistake to believe Merseysiders share a common bond akin to that felt by Londoners, who seem happy to be led by Ken Livingstone.

The study argues instead for federations of existing local authority leaders and scrutiny by committees of MPs - who would meet in the North- West, instead of at Westminster.

Mr Balls seems to have been sent out by the future Prime Minister to torpedo the "city-regions" policy even before its details have been revealed in October's promised White Paper.

The problem for campaigners for a "Merseyside Mayor" is that there is no-one left around the Cabinet table to argue the case against the might of Mr Brown.

The original champion for devolution - John Prescott - is damaged beyond repair and his replacement - David Miliband - has been shifted to environment.

In his place sits Ruth Kelly - quickly demoted to Communities and Local Government Secretary after failing miserably at education. No match for Mr Brown, I fear.

WHEN I think about Israel's murderous campaign in Lebanon, I'm reminded of the Saturday night somebody head-butted me in a pub when I was a teenager.

I accidentally brushed against my attacker, spilling his pint. He turned around and "Zidaned" me, breaking my nose and sending me to casualty.

Through the blood and pain, I seem to remember the doctor describing his reaction as dispropor tionate.

The study argues for federations of existing local authority leaders
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 25, 2006
Words:433
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