The timing was perfect. Two days after the snap election, Ed Balls, the former Treasury heavyweight and Labour leadership contender, was sat just metres away from me giving a talk. Admittedly, his reign in the party appears now to be from an age bygone – an age of moderation, centrism and the Greens jealously guarding the youth vote. I couldn’t wait to shoot my hand up and rip into his views on how Corbyn did so well.
His response was far more nuanced than that. Indeed, I should have known better from a senior politician. Speaking to the audience in the Theatre, Film and Television building on Heslington East, as part of the University of York’s Festival of Ideas (and, conveniently, his own book promotion tour), Balls turned his fire to the Tories in true tribalistic fashion.
“Theresa May as Prime Minister is finished,” he lauded. Throughout the Q&A, notifications came through to our phones, bringing the news of both Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the PM’s co-chiefs of staff, resigning. It was believed that they were the main culprits behind the Conservatives’ lacklustre manifesto, as senior Tory MPs gave May the ultimatum of sacking them or facing a leadership challenge. Stunningly, two years on from losing his seat, Ed Balls was commanding a play-by-play of the political showdown.
“I wouldn’t aim the blame at her advisors,” Balls continued – a call for calm during this mad media storm. “There is no doubt that May’s Number 10 was a very controlling environment. She delegated most of her dealings to advisors, and was contentious of other politicians – remember Osborne and Gove? But it’s also been the same with politicians she’s brought in.” Of course, Balls was alluding to reports that May was prepared to sack both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, should an increased majority have strengthened her hand. I couldn’t help but scratch my head. Surely, thinking back to the days of Blair’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, where the actual cabinet was bypassed and the likes of Peter Mandelson emboldened, the Labour administration in which Ed Balls thrived was equally authoritative?
Before I thought to pose the question later, he’d outmaneuvered me with a preemptive justification. “This was the strength of the Blair and Brown partnership. Blair preferred to have Brown in the Treasury, as the challenge was good for him. May wanted to bring in those who weren’t strong, such as Philip Hammond. There were Tory cabinet ministers packed onto a bus during this election campaign, reading their manifesto together for the first time and saying ‘oh, I didn’t know this policy was in there!’”
The DUP was not the coalition of chaos Theresa May warned us about
Hence the dementia tax, so perhaps a fair point to make. Much to my delight, though, the topic turned swiftly from diagnostics of where the Tories went wrong, towards contemplating successors to May’s doomed premiership. I thought to myself to question the judgement of Ed Balls on this one, as he’d totally sat out of the past parliament. His wife, former Home Secretary and ‘moderate’ Yvette Cooper, had resigned to the backbenches for nearly as long. It must be said that he left me vindicated, bizarrely and enthusiastically exploring the odds on David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, becoming Prime Minister.
“He’s the only minister who’s spoken in public [since the election result], and he may think he’s got a good chance of being coronated as successor.” Balls argued. “His pitch would be that he’s a liberal person, and could reach out to the centre ground and say to the Tories in London and southern seats, at a time of crisis, ‘I’m your guy’. He’s a capable and flexible politician: last autumn, he was the one to concede that we may need to give a financial contribution to the EU upon leaving. That was the right thing to say.”
However, Balls quickly rowed back on this, be it for the sake of balance or admitting that his theory could be pretty ‘out there’. “He’s always been a bit of a loner, though. Does he have the necessary attention to detail [to be Prime Minister]? He’d need to reach out socially and empathetically. In 2001 and 2004, we weren’t worried about Davis, but were were quite worried about Ken Clarke becoming leader.”
Indeed, David Davis came fourth in the 2001 Conservative leadership contest and third in the subsequent 2004 contest. To think he now stands a chance of winning the premiership is a world away from the Westminster Ed Balls knew – and this is symptomatic of the reality he now faces. For all he kept himself abreast with the day’s political chatter, politics has moved on without the former Shadow Chancellor.
The latest surge for Corbyn, of course, has been the main symptom. Eventually, Balls was pinned down to the subject, but stopped short of outright praising the Labour leader.
“I think there are two choices facing Jeremy going forward,” Balls said. “He has to decide: ‘is my style going to win in the end, in which case I should be even more of an outsider’, or does he say ‘I need to build a broad coalition and reach into the centre ground’?”
“He immediately followed this up by stating that he’d back the latter conclusion. Potentially, such a strategy could see his wife Yvette Cooper return to the frontbench, as the former Shadow Home Secretary has long been considered a favourite for a leadership challenge among moderate Labour MPs. While Balls wholly acknowledged the notion that Prime Minister Corbyn is now “on the agenda”, he seemed rather pessimistic about the challenges ahead.
He noted: “The big divides that have emerged since this election are between young and old, and cities and smaller towns. Labour did well in pro-remain seats – you saw it in London massively. York Central also saw that swing [to Labour], even if Rachael Maskell wasn’t so worried. Labour needs to keep the urban, pro-remain, young and intellectual vote, but also broaden its base beyond that.”
Balls concluded these remarks by predicting there’d be another general election in a few months time, caused by a vote of no confidence against the government, as the Tories “cannot have a working majority on Brexit issues” now that it runs a minority administration. “The deal with the DUP was not the coalition of chaos Theresa May was warning about”, he remarked.
Beyond snap elections, the former Treasury chief was even more scathing about referendums in general. There were no UK-wide referendums under the last Labour government, compared to two under Cameron’s premiership. This was despite initial plans for Blair’s government to hold a national vote on whether Britain should adopt the Euro. Citing last year’s EU referendum as the source of the current “chaos” among government ranks, Balls claimed the following: “Referendums should be affirming, rather than confirming. If we’d proposed to join the Euro, there’d be a referendum. But asking the country what they think is not the best way to govern.”
Asking the country what they think is not the best way to govern them
It was largely due to the influence of Ed Balls, under Gordon Brown’s chancellorship, that Labour did not advocate joining the Euro during its first term. He cited this as one of the achievements he was most proud of, looking back at a political career that spanned 21 years. In his book, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics, Balls writes openly about looking back on this legacy as a means of solace after losing his seat in the 2015 general election.
“It’s hard to look back without retrospection,” Balls said, smiling wryly. “I’ve only been back to the Leeds Arena where I lost my seat once – on a tour bus, accompanied by a professional dancer. That night, we won! The people of West Yorkshire voted for us!”
Reminiscing about his Strictly career is fitting of a man who transformed his public image as a means of coping with the loss. Since 2015, Balls has transformed from what David Cameron denounced as “the most annoying man in British politics” and the purported architect of “Labour’s Great Recession”, into how his memoir’s blurb describes him: “one of Britain’s most influential and well-loved political figures”. Indeed, it’s hard to look back without retrospection, and Balls has worked to put right the ill perceptions levelled against him from his time in the murky business of government. Less “Great Recession”, more Gangnam Style.
Such a rebranding of Balls can therefore be seen as a resurrection. In the first chapter of Speaking Out, Balls describes that “when a high-profile figure is unexpectedly shunned out by the voters, it’s treated more like a political death – hence some people were actually getting in touch with Yvette, rather than me, to pass on their condolences.” Spiritually, Ed Balls the politician appears to have died. He did not seem to struggle ruling out another run in this year’s snap election, and was visibly glowing when grinning and shaking hands with fans at his book signing on Heslington East. It appears that Ed Balls the celebrity is relishing his new life, emotionally unphased by the political uncertainty that followed his departure from Westminster.
On the note of his loss in 2015, Balls had the following advice to MPs who lose their seats: “If you’re up against someone who’s won for the first time, remember what that was like for you. Enjoy them enjoying winning for the first time.” This struck an oddly humanising tone for a description of the political battleground Ed Balls had come to know. It was timely, then, that an audience member finished the Q&A by asking the question: “Why is it we’ve only gotten to know this particular Ed Balls, and ‘sassy Ed Miliband’, now that neither of you are on the front bench?”
This touched on a key theme in Speaking Out, which Balls summarises in the preface as “the strange challenge of trying to remain a proper person at the same time as being a politician.” He lamented that opening up about his stammer, which he was diagnosed with having during his time as a Cabinet Minister, failed to give him a popularity boost as Shadow Chancellor (“I’ve stammered all the way through this!” he cried out during the Q&A) – nor did “mistakenly” admitting in 2011 that “Antiques Roadshow makes me cry”.
“The conclusion I’ve reached is that politicians have to find ways to show more of their human side – not presenting a front which people can see through,” Balls stated. “I think Theresa May’s election campaign is a classic example of a politician who tried to be a leader and not a human being.”
Fields of wheat come to mind in an instant. Conceding an own goal among his own faction, though, Ed Balls drew comparisons between Theresa May and Gordon Brown in this regard. He claimed that his former boss was also an example of this very mistake, largely to do him being a “very shy” character.
Regarding the former premier, Balls admitted to personal regret: “I was too far away [from Brown] as a cabinet minister. I carry the guilt that maybe I ought to have helped him more. He’d call me and ask me to read Treasury papers, but I said no, because he had Darling [as Chancellor] and I didn’t want to become his surrogate advisor. In the loneliness of being Prime Minister, what he wanted was people who could be close in that team.
“He’d wear a suit seven days a week, because he wanted everyone to think he was always working!” Balls lamented.
Perhaps therein lies the double bind: lonely politicians are not electable politicians, nor are they necessarily happy ones. Fusing these emotional issues to the concept of leadership, Balls was able to make an incredibly strong case for a shift in how we view our political leaders. It’s not unlike the public perception of Corbyn, either, often seen in conversation with grime artists and giving The One Show hosts his own homemade jam. This could be instrumental in understanding why Labour did so well this time among the social media generation. Once again, the insight of Ed Balls proved to be current and relevant, despite his indefinite political retirement. It begs the question as to whether British politics is worse off without it at the frontline.
Theresa May … is a classic example of a politician who tried to be a leader and not a human being
However, I highly doubt much of this heightened emotional maturity was nearly as potent before he lost his seat. In ‘speaking out’ and reflecting on his time as a high-flying political maneuverer, the benefit of hindsight has enriched Balls’ analysis – not just on his past, but on the issues today that the government faces. This resurrection is more than a career move. Should Ed Balls continue to speak out on British politics, such a benefit of hindsight may lend itself priceless for years to come.