Ed Balls was out dancing last night till just short of midnight. This morning he’s as fresh as a daisy, raring to go. It’s barely 9am and he has already been on the radio, chatting about his upcoming appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, his chairmanship of Norwich City, his memoirs, his post as senior fellow at Harvard, piano playing, marathon running, baking, you name it. Even politics.
There was a time not so long ago when the former shadow chancellor did nothing but politics. He worried he had no hinterland. Now, having lost his seat at the 2015 general election, there’s nothing but hinterland.
Balls says Strictly is the culmination of a midlife crisis that began when Labour went into opposition in 2010. What does his wife – the MP Yvette Cooper, who stood for the Labour leadership last year – think of his crisis? He laughs. She thinks it’s a bit indulgent. When we were both in parliament, she thought it was easier for me to have a midlife crisis than her. Politics and family were all-consuming, and she thought it was indulgent for me to be going off doing marathons.
Balls was at the heart of New Labour – from the rebooting of the old model, through to the bitter civil wars and the horror show that was the 2015 general election. When it was announced that he had lost his Morley and Outwood seat at 7.30am on 8 May by 422 votes, it became emblematic of the whole shambles. The man who had expected to be chancellor was out of a job. Were you up for Ed Balls?
He is famous for his colossal brain – and an ego to match. His self-belief might best be summed up by a promise he made four years ago when he took up the piano. He told the world that by the age of 50 he would reach grade 8. Today, he says he was rash. Now 49, he has passed grade 4, and revised his target to passing grade 8 at 55.
Balls grew up in Norwich. In his memoir, Speaking Out, he plays up his working-class credentials, talking about how his grandfather would do three shifts a day on a Saturday – as a lorry driver, on the turnstiles at Norwich City, and stewarding at the speedway in the evening. What he doesn’t mention is that his father studied at Oxford University and became a professor of zoology – a shame, because it’s a wonderful example of upward mobility. Balls himself was privately educated.
By his late 20s, having graduated from Oxford in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) with a first, and having worked for the Financial Times, he was basically running the Treasury for Gordon Brown – number two in a team of bruisers that included legendary hardmen Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride. Their battles with Tony Blair at No 10 were legendary and legion, fired by a righteous desire to redistribute more widely than Blair did.
Speaking Out is a spiky account of his years in power. He acknowledges that he has always been ferociously ambitious and wants to win everything, from an economics argument to a football match against the press (he has a history of elbowing the opposition). And this is quickly apparent in Speaking Out. On the surface, it is a confession about failure and vulnerability. He writes about his failure to foresee the collapse of the banks, and a stammer that left him mute at key moments in the Commons. But in most stories he tells, he emerges victorious, or with somebody else shouldering the blame – notably the former Labour leader Ed Miliband.
In the book, he suggests his image is unfair. People think he’s a bruiser because of his Brown associations, his name and his rugby forward’s body. I’m not convinced, though. Just look at what Blair had to say about you in his memoirs, I say.
It wasn’t too bad, was it? he asks.
Well, it wasn’t great. I quote chunks of it to him. Blair says Balls constantly briefed against him on everything from schools to tax, he refused to share information, and yes, he could win a political scrap, but he had no public appeal.
Balls smiles. He still insists he was not responsible for the briefings – but yes, it was a tricky relationship. My job was to tell truth to power. He talks about his great victories at the Treasury, often achieved despite Blair: keeping Britain out of the euro, handing power to the Bank of England to set its own rates, increasing tax to boost the NHS.
People have called you an intellectual bully, I say, and have said you patronised Blair. He looks astonished. Tony Blair, in his pomp, patronised? Nooooo. I mean that’s just complete crap. But with the euro, we were tough with No 10. Really tough. And at times we stepped over the mark. At times we were too heavy. There is no doubt in that first period in dealing with No 10 that there were times, intellectually and in policy terms, that we were definitely too heavy. We were inclined to think we’ve got the answer, we’re right, and to not be sufficiently appreciating of the other side’s arguments and motivations. I think we were intellectually steamrollering. I’d accept that, but that isn’t the same as bullying.
He says Blair regarded him as insolent, a young punk babbling nonsense. But it wasn’t nonsense. And if you don’t say what you think, what’s the point of being in the room? He told me to wash my mouth out once. It was very early on, ’96, before the ’97 election. There were the typical Gordon/Mandelson tensions going on about who was running the election campaign, there were about 12 people in the room, and Tony said: ‘I think we should make a commitment not to raise the tax burden’. I then said, in front of everybody, ‘You can’t do that’, and he said why, and I said: ‘Because then when we raise the tax burden you’ll have broken your promise.’ He said: ‘Wash your mouth out young man.’
Is it true he accused Blair of believing that he was bigger than the party and the only man capable of winning elections for Labour? Well, I think that was true. Sometimes people get into a mindset where they think it’s all about me and only me. There was a period when there was a danger of that for Tony.
Like Blair, Balls could now probably make squillions – his brother is a top bond dealer. Is he tempted? Not to go and advise the government of Kazakhstan, he says pointedly. Coming out of politics, you have to make a decision on the path you choose, and that would not be the path I would choose. In the end it’s been bad for Tony Blair’s reputation, because it’s not looked very discerning. The issue with him is not that he’s gone on to make money, it’s that he may have stepped over the line with some of the people he’s worked with and advised.
Balls’ battles were not just with Blair. When Brown succeeded Blair, Balls frequently found himself at loggerheads with his mentor. Did they fall out? Fall out is the wrong word. It was hard because when he was prime minister he was inevitably more distant from me because of the job he was doing, and he was also angry with me for being more distant from him by doing my job. Brown offered him the job of chancellor five times, but for various reasons it never worked out. Brown pleaded for him to work alongside him at No 10, but he was committed to his ministerial post as secretary of state for children, schools and families. It’s hard to say no to Gordon because he never hears no. I worked hard to try to strengthen his office so he wouldn’t think I had to come in and do it. But I felt guilty. He made me feel guilty.
Despite Brown’s many flaws, Balls remains a fan. Legacy, he says, often looks very different a few years down the line. The judgment of history will be much kinder to John Major and Gordon Brown than to David Cameron and Tony Blair. Cameron will be remembered as the guy who took us out of Europe by mistake, Blair will be remembered as the guy who took us to a war that was judged a failure. Gordon will be the guy who, having stopped us going into the single currency, then played a really important role in stopping the world depression. John Major will be remembered as the guy who, in very difficult circumstances, won an election and negotiated the Maastricht treaty opt-out. History will judge Gordon and Major well, which is surprising.
Having achieved so much so early as an adviser, is he disappointed with his own legacy as an MP? In 2005 I would have definitely thought that if I didn’t get to be chancellor I would have been a failure. But part of the purpose of writing the book is to say to people who want to go into politics: if you think of that as being a failure, you’ll have a really disappointing time.
Does he think his greatest political successes were before he entered parliament? I may look back on my life and think 1997-2004 was my time. On Bank of England independence, the NHS and the euro – if I hadn’t been there they may not have turned out the way they did, and they have been lasting achievements. I’m not sure anything has happened since 2004 of which I could say the same.
In 2010, Balls stood for the leadership of the Labour party, finishing third. He has always said that if Yvette, with whom he has three children, had wanted to run at the time he would not have stood. Looking back, does he think she would have had a better chance of winning than him? Yes, for three reasons. First of all, because I was defined by my relationship to Gordon. Secondly, David Miliband became the Tony Blair person and I became the Gordon Brown person, and Ed Miliband somehow managed not to be the Gordon Brown person, which I could never understand. And the third thing is there was a male, Miliband grip in that election, and it was very hard for me to break through that, whereas Yvette would have found that easier, because the issue would have been: ‘Do you want a Miliband or do you want Labour’s first woman leader?’
In Speaking Out, he blames Ed Miliband for Labour’s defeat, and complains that Miliband rarely spoke to him and failed to take his advice on embracing business. You give Miliband a big kicking, I say. He looks surprised. I didn’t set out to give Ed a big kicking. I set out to explain why things have been more distant between us for a long time, but I don’t think it’s inevitable that it will last. Balls and Miliband had worked closely together on Brown’s team, with Balls very much the senior. He suggests that Miliband was so anxious that there be no repeat of the Blair/Brown fallout that he deliberately created distance.
Did that hurt him? Yes. Intellectually, objectively, I understand, but emotionally I wish it hadn’t been that way. I’d much rather we had been close and a team as we were at the Treasury. It’s not how I would have done it.
It’s all very well blaming Miliband, I say, but you don’t appear to take responsibility for the defeat. What were your biggest failings? I let Osborne off the hook in two autumn statements by allowing the story to be whether I had done a good enough response rather than what he was doing, and that’s really annoying. Really annoying. I should have been able to make you more scared of what the Tories were trying to do. I tried.
There was an excruciating Newsnight appearance when Balls was asked which business leaders supported Labour and he said he had just been with one, but couldn’t remember his name – Bill Somebody. In the book he says there are trivial cockups like this, and major ones such as when Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his 2014 conference speech. But the Newsnight appearance was not trivial, I say: it was one of the defining images of the election campaign. To his credit, Balls now concedes that it was devastating. I had this out-of-body moment. I disappeared up here, [he makes a gesture of his head floating above him] and I was looking down, thinking, ‘Oh fuck, there’s no way out of this. There’s nothing you can say that will get you out of this.’ And she [Emily Maitlis] is asking questions and I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I don’t concentrate on what she’s saying, I’m going to fuck it up again.’ My inner voice was going: ‘You’ve really screwed this one up.’ So I’m thinking: ‘Shut up, I’ve got to do this interview.’ Part of me wanted to say: ‘Fine, we might as well stop now, what’s the point, you’ve got your story.’ After he left the studio, he rang his adviser and said he had messed up. He said: ‘Yes you have, and my advice to you is don’t look at Twitter tonight.’ It was just one of those things where you think: ‘Kabooommm!’ I don’t think that’s why we lost the election. He smiles. But maybe I’m wrong.
Today Balls seems different; more human. He tells me that for many years he believed that if you had weaknesses, you were screwed; you had to be the best at everything. Balls still has an arrogance, but it is one tempered by humility – of the kind that perhaps only comes with failure.
As we leave his publisher’s office, I show him the front page of the previous day’s Times. The splash headline is: Corbyn on course to win bigger mandate and the picture next to it is Balls rehearsing for Strictly. There is something knowing and gleeful about the juxtaposition of the Corbyn story and the image of a senior Labour player dancing. Ex-senior player, he says quietly.
At the end of the book, he seems to be pleading for a return to New Labour values. Doesn’t he think there has to be a new offer to the voter? Yes, he says. It’s obvious that you didn’t buy into Miliband’s offer and you don’t buy into Corbyn’s offer, so what is your alternative? I think that’s the best criticism of the book. I feel the book is a reflection on lessons I’ve learned over the last 20 years. But actually the ‘where do we go next, what the hell do we do’, feels to me like work in progress. I’m not sure that anybody’s got the answer yet. Saying ‘the status quo’ or ‘back to New Labour’ is not going to work.
Meanwhile, Balls has got his cha-cha-cha to focus on. It’s a huge challenge, he says, and it’s going to be great fun. Then he looks back at the newspaper I’ve just shown him. If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us’, I would drop Strictly and drop Harvard, I’d drop everything except Norwich, to go and do it. I would go like a shot. But it’s not going to happen, because I don’t think I am the answer.
Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics by Ed Balls is published by Cornerstone on 6 September at £20. Buy it for £16.40 at bookshop.theguardian.com
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