Just a few days after the 1997 election, Gordon Brown's surprise announcement that he was going to grant the Bank of England independence was a landmark moment in Labour economic policy making. All those now at the top of the party remember it well. Ed Miliband was working for Brown as an adviser, as was the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, who claims credit for coming up with the idea in the first place.
And Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury? She remembers it too, because she was at school at the time studying for her economics A-level. After Brown's announcement, what she had learnt about British monetary policy was turned upside-down. Some hasty rethinking was required before her exam a few weeks later.
Fifteen years on, Labour is again preoccupied with the need to demonstrate economic credibility, and Reeves, who has just turned 33, is at the heart of the battle to secure it. Elected as MP for Leeds West in 2010, she joined the Shadow Cabinet in October last year. It's an astonishing rise, but not an undeserved one. “She really is as impressive as everyone says she is,” confirms a Labour colleague. Reeves is a high-powered economist, with experience at a senior level in the corporate private sector. Alongside Balls, she is regularly put forward by Labour to fight the battle for economic credibility on the airwaves.
Reeves was born into a Labour family. Her parents were both teachers and her father, a primary school headteacher, was active in the National Union of Teachers. She joined the party in 1996, but not as a Blairite convert; she has been pro-Labour ever since 1987, when she recalls watching the election news on TV with her dad, who was backing Neil Kinnock.
In 1997 she went to Oxford to study PPE (politics, philosophy and economics). She dabbled in Oxford student politics and, after graduating in 2000, joined the Bank of England – partly because Bank staff, unlike Treasury staff, are not restricted in what they can do politically. But she didn’t seem to have become fully set on a parliamentary career until she fought the safe Tory seat of Bromley and Chislehurst in the 2005 election. Reeves discovered that she really enjoyed leading a campaign, and insisted on standing again in 2006, when Eric Forth's death prompted a byelection, even though Labour's prospects were dismal.
By then Reeves had left the Bank of England and was working for the Bank of Scotland. She was selected in 2007 as Labour's candidate for Leeds West. After the 2010 election she supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership, because she felt he was the candidate most willing to listen to what the voters were saying about where the party went wrong, and in October 2010 she joined the front bench as Shadow Pensions Minister. It was an appropriate appointment for someone told by the school careers adviser she should become an actuary. Reeves led a campaign against the penalisation of women by the rise in the state pension age, leading to a partial government U-turn.
As the youngest member of the Shadow Cabinet, Reeves is inevitably being touted as a future leader. (Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, who is older than her by about four months, suffers from the same problem.) It is not hard to see why. She's competitive (she was the under-14 UK girls chess champion). She's decisive and self-confident (at the Bank of England she worked in monetary analysis and was part of the team that had to brief the Monetary Policy Committee before it decided what to do about interest rates.) She is not identified with any Blairite/Brownite faction. She is well liked. And she has a strong network, too: her sister, Ellie, has been on Labour's National Executive Committee for the past five years, and Ellie's partner is the leftwing MP John Cryer.
Sensibly, Reeves, whose husband, Nicholas Joicey, is a civil servant in the Cabinet Office, is playing all this down. “I look at the life choice that someone like Ed Miliband must have to make to be leader of a political party and I don't really envy a lot of that,” she said recently. But at Westminster, where ‘spot the future leader’ is a morbid obsession, that does not quite sound like a denial. “Definitely one to watch,” a colleague says.