This article first appeared in the December issue of Total Politics
It’s a surreal moment when Ed Balls starts singing Elvis at you, especially when he mispronounces the words and uses a dodgy American accent. An American Trilogy is renamed An American Tril-ol-ogy. He insists it sounds better that way.
While the King made a living from crooning and shaking his hips at screaming girls, Balls spends his day crowing and waggling his arms at David Cameron and George Osborne. Strangely, his tactics seem to be equally effective in turning up the heat.
Indeed, the prime minister once described the shadow chancellor as “the most annoying person in modern politics”. As the eurozone crisis deepens – and Balls takes every opportunity to suggest that it was Labour that kept Britain out of the euro – it’s easy to see how he might get under people’s skin.
But, sitting in his Westminster office, the shadow chancellor is in charm mode. “The last time you interviewed me was in the former Met Police commander’s office,” he remembers. “This was Margaret Thatcher’s office from 1974–79,” he says, gesturing around the room. “And Clement Attlee’s (1951-55), Tony Blair’s (1994-97), Michael Foot’s, Neil Kinnock’s… Every leader of the opposition before Cameron, basically.”
He nods: “I lost the election, but I got the office.”
There is an increasingly popular narrative that Balls is the power behind ‘the other Ed’. The shadow chancellor works so closely with the Labour leader that they share office space, staff and co-host press conferences. “They’ve ended up being quite a good double-act,” agrees one senior Labour source.
Earlier, waiting for Balls to arrive, a Labour Party researcher sidled up with a bottle of champagne to be auctioned at a local fundraiser. “I thought I’d come over and get Ed Miliband to sign it. But your Ed will do,” she says cheerily, holding out her pen.
Balls is happy to talk about how close they are. “The truth about me, Ed and Yvette is that we’ve known each other for 20 years,” he says. “We’ve all come from the same part of the party, intellectually. I did a Bevan lecture recently which Ed might have done, or Yvette, because we’re all from the… I’d call it ‘visionary pragmatic tradition’. You want to be in government but you also want to change the world.”
It’s indicative of the awkward family photo album that is the top of the Labour Party – two brothers barely seen in public together, and a husband and wife who both wear the trousers.
But that uneasy dynamic may change. Asked by The Sunday Telegraph if he still wanted to be Labour leader, Balls replied simply: “No.” He also revealed that he’d asked Cooper if she wanted to stand for the top job last year, but she’d decided against it. Questioned on if he would repeat the invitation to his wife, Balls told the paper: “Of course.” In a pale imitation of the Granita Pact of 1994 (where Brown agreed to give Blair a clear run at the premiership), Balls and Cooper are reported to have made a ‘Costa Coffee Agreement’ as they queued for espressos at an M1 motorway service station.
So it’s all sewn up, then – Balls won’t stand for the leadership and he’d like to see the shadow home secretary become the boss instead. Well, not quite. “That’s a bit of a caricature,” Balls says. “We had a leadership election and we chose a leader. I want Ed Miliband to be the next prime minister and I want to be the chancellor. There’s no part of me that’s agitating or resentful about not being the leader.”
What about his wife standing? Balls explains: “[The Sunday Telegraph] said, ‘Were there ever at some point in the future a vacancy, would you support Yvette?’ And I said, ‘You should always judge a politician on their revealed preference, what they’ve already done. And last time I said to Yvette if she wanted to stand I’d support her, and she decided that she didn’t want to, so I stood’.”
It’s a little confusing. So The Sunday Telegraph was right? “What I said last time is that that’s what I would have done… and that’s what I’d do again. But [the opportunity’s] not there, it doesn’t exist. I say to Yvette, ‘There’s a big different in the generations.’ Our generation is much more at ease with a world in which men and women are complete equals in the workplace. We balance the childcare, I do the cooking, I do the shopping. That’s the division. It’s not really gender-based.
“But Yvette would say, ‘Actually, it is still the case, there’s big differences [with gender]’. One big difference is I have photos of my kids on my phone, in my room, lots on the walls, and Yvette doesn’t… I like seeing pictures of the kids while I’m working. Yvette says it makes her feel like she should be at home.
“Thinking about last summer – for Ed Miliband, for Dave and Andy – worrying about how we’d ever manage this, was probably a bigger worry for us than for men 30, 40 years older than us. For Yvette, it was a bigger, different kind of worry.”
Family might impact on politics, but politics isn’t allowed to impact on family life, Balls says. “We tend to go on holiday with good friends who aren’t from politics. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it. This might be an odd thing to say but we’re not obsessives, we have a broad range of life interests and, as it happens, we’re professional politicians.”
We’ve gone slightly off-track. Let’s try a different question: do you think the next leader of the Labour Party might be a woman? “Of course,” replies Balls. “Yes… And then… it might be a man.”
Such is the trickiness of Balls. It’s a bit like riding a bucking bronco – just as you think you’ve got into the rhythm, it throws you onto the floor in an undignified heap. Frustrating, but you know you’d pay two quid to do it again. He’s good value.
But there is a darker side to the Labour MP. He’s been denounced as an “attack dog”, a “bruiser” and “a bit of a bully” by papers and even fellow MPs. He was linked to the ‘Project Volvo’ – a plan to oust Blair in favour of Brown. And he had a questionable friendship with former Downing Street adviser Damian McBride, known to some as “McPoison”.
Just as we’re about to put all this to him, the division bell goes. He returns a few minutes later, with a set piece answer down pat. “Point one, the country is crying out for some opposition,” Balls says. “Secondly, politics is hard and government is difficult. Cameron and Osborne will find that as well. The third thing is that people are always a bit caricatured in politics. If you’re male and over 15 stone, you’ll always get a little bit of that caricature.”
And he’s happy with that? “I’d rather lose a couple of stone,” he says. “But I’m not sure that it would make much difference.”
It’s also a portrayal that’s developed because of his associations with Gordon Brown and others. He is supposedly still in regular contact with McBride, who tried to smear the reputation of senior Tory MPs with lies about their private lives. “I’ve not seen Damian McBride since he left the government,” says Balls. “Quite a long time ago. I talk to him from time to time. Unlike Andy Coulson, McBride is not being questioned by the police and I’ve never invited him to Chequers.”
He pauses. “And maybe you might think that’s a bit ‘attack doggy’,” he says, realising his slight contradiction, “but it’s the truth.”
Certainly some of that ‘bruiser’ status remains in his exchanges with George Osborne. Ask who his most formidable political opponent is, and Balls is happy to admit it’s “definitely” Osborne. “He’s the best on their side,” he says.
Despite the grudging respect, it doesn’t mean the relationship between the government and opposition is any less strained at present.
This month, growth figures were better than expected, with a 0.5 per cent rise in GDP between July and September. “They were only better than expected because expectations got so low,” says Balls. “Anything slightly above zero was going to be better than expected. If a government has retreated to a point of saying, ‘Well, any growth is good growth’, that tells you it’s not really working.”
Of course, Balls’ favourite way to illustrate this is through his signature Commons dance move, ‘The Flat Line’. He explains the significance behind the gesture. “All I’m pointing out to Cameron is that for all of his boasts and bluster, a year ago he said we were out of the danger zone and since then he’s flatlined so much.”
Recently, Cameron tried to suggest that there was something more sinister to Balls’ gliding palm. “You can go on making your rather questionable salutes...,” the prime minister glowered at the shadow chancellor during PMQs. A simplistic jibe, perhaps, but it reminded people of those photos – Balls dressed in a Nazi uniform at an Oxford University party.
Why does he think the gesture winds Cameron up so much? “I don’t know, really,” Balls replies. “I think because he’s in phase one of being a prime minister, where he thinks that if he says things they must be true because he is the prime minister.
“He’s only now getting into phase two, where he finds out simply saying things doesn’t make them true. Therefore, whatever he says – ‘We’ve saved the economy’, ‘It’s all Labour’s fault’ – under his watch unemployment is rising again and the economy has flatlined. I’m a mirror reflecting reality back. He says, ’We’ve sorted out the economy’, I say, ‘Flat line’.”
Balls thinks that the reason Cameron and Osborne are failing to connect with the public is because their talk on the economy is “conceptual”. The solution is optimism, he says.
“That hit to confidence last autumn, why did that happen? Partly because Cameron and Osborne told everybody how bad things were. I don’t see why we should take lectures from a prime minister and chancellor who did nothing but talk the economy down all through last year. They’re partly reaping the consequences of that.”
The chancellor and the prime minister have levelled the same criticism at Balls over time. But Balls is reluctant to accept that Labour is pessimistic about the economy.
“Where did I start my conference speech? There’s a better way to do this, it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s possible to change course in a way that’s credible but that gets the economy moving and more hope and optimism.”
He claims that his words were drowned out by the natural bump of a new regime. “There was a new government, and they can define the debate,” says Balls. “That was doubly so in the first months. For the first year, everybody was told, ‘We’ve got a plan, it will work and there’s no alternative.’ For most of this year, it was hard for us to be heard because everybody thought it was going to work. Why discuss the alternative?
“During that period there was no way my message could get through… It wasn’t me talking down the economy; the economy had gone wrong. In these circumstances, to persuade people to listen to a better way, I’ve got to say it’s not working.”
In a week’s time, Osborne will deliver his autumn statement. Many in the Conservative Party think there will be a renewed emphasis on growth, or a “Plan A Part 2”, as one calls it.
Balls is not convinced that coalition plans for growth will work. “The only growth strategy they seem to be able to come up with is to remove regulation or to bring forward spending they’ve already announced. The government has no credibility in saying, ‘Here’s our growth strategy’, when in the past year its growth strategy has delivered diddly-squat.”
He continues: “A year ago Cameron made a very big mistake: he shouldn’t have said, ‘We’re out of the danger zone’, he should have said, ‘It will get harder before it gets better, and we’re going to see it through’… They feel out of touch at the moment on the economy because their script hasn’t caught up with what’s actually happening. Nobody out there believes that suddenly the eurozone has caused this, because it’s not true.”
Balls claims that now is a “vital” period for Labour to “establish the foundations for an optimistic manifesto”.
He explains: “I said to the Parliamentary Labour Party in January this year, the first time we’ll really know whether we have been right or not is October or November. So all through June, July, my message to the PLP was that it was too early to tell. The first time we’ll know how we can translate that into political progress for us is by the middle of next year. Reason being that the public has to see the coalition not succeed, not deliver the promises, not meet expectations. Our moment of political opportunity to win that argument starts now.”
He seems rather confident in his plan, but many still find it hard to accept Labour as economically credible. A ComRes poll last month found that just 18 per cent of voters would trust Balls and Miliband to make the right decisions on the economy, compared with 30 per cent for Osborne and Cameron.
“In the polling I’ve seen we’ve been making up some ground, but not yet a huge amount,” concedes Balls. “The Tory position was much higher, and it’s collapsed. We were low and making some improvements, but we’ve got a lot more to do.”
Apart from regulating the banks, does Balls really believe he got everything else right in government? “We didn’t regulate the banks toughly enough, and we got that wrong,” he repeats.
But surely that was not the only mistake? “That is by far the most seismic event of this generation, economically. We did some very good things and we got some things wrong. The fundamental re-skilling of the next generation already in work – we never did enough of that. We didn’t manage, more broadly, to solve the problem of how to have capital and finance for the small to medium-sized growing business. We got the policy on immigration right much too late. And this nexus of immigration, housing, skills was a big problem for us.”
In the past two months, John Prescott and Harriet Harman have both called for Labour to stop apologising and move on. It’s not quite so easy for Ed on the economy, though. “In the last year, the only three people who’ve delivered a live, primetime TV broadcast to the nation are Osborne, me and the Queen. The Queen does it on Christmas Day. Osborne was on Budget Day and I was the day after.
“I chose in my live broadcast to say sorry for the failure of the banking regulation. It was impossible for me to think of a bigger platform on which to do that. That was a big deal. These things always take time to come through.”
Balls is clear that Labour must focus on the Conservatives, rather than their smaller, more cuddly coalition partners. He wrote recently: “Let’s not forget that this is essentially a Tory administration, pursuing Tory policies and a small state ideology, with the willing assistance of the Lib Dems.”
As part of 2010’s unsuccessful Labour coalition negotiation team, could he see himself working with his yellow friends in the future? “I don’t think there’s a single member of the shadow cabinet who’d find it easy to sit down with Nick Clegg,” says Balls. “What Clegg did last year was so shocking. But that’s not true of Lib Dems generally.”
He continues: “Sometimes people say, ‘The old party politics dividing line has gone.’ What a load of tosh. We have deeper, wider choices of where we go on the NHS, jobs, or the economy than in the 1980s. People want politicians to care. When Ed says people want to bring values back into politics, I really care… I’d rather that than be bland and boring.”
Clegg has professed to caring so much that he “cries regularly to music”. Balls’ emotional trigger is a little less conventional. “I cry at the Antiques Roadshow,” he admits. “You know, when someone comes in with some family heirloom and it’s often the last bit in the programme and the expert says, ‘Do you know how much this is worth? It’s valued at X thousand pounds.’ And they say, ‘I’m amazed it’s worth that much, but it means more to me than money.’ Incredibly emotional.”
He has also owned up to shedding the occasional tear at The Sound of Music. “When the father brings the Baroness back from Vienna, but finds the kids wearing the curtain clothes, hanging on the trees… And the children sing The Sound of Music in harmony, with a guitar. He walks in and sings with them. He’s coming to terms with the death of his wife and music being back in the household. That’s the most tear-jerky moment of world cinema. All our kids not only know the words but they know all the harmonies.”
Your very own Von Trapp family? “We are!” He breaks into song: “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!”
He’s warming to his theme. “The last thing I cried at was The Kids’ Speech BBC documentary. The stammering one… Flipping heck.” Balls used to suffer from a stammer and was bullied at school because of it. In 2010, he became a patron of the British Stammering Association. “I don’t think I’m ever going to persuade you that I’m an emotional wreck, though, am I?” He shrugs.
Another passion is cooking. Balls has been known to tweet pictures of his finest kitchen creations (his double-cream sponge looks divine), and when children’s minister, he launched an initiative to teach the nation’s pupils to cook. What dish would Balls serve up for Osborne, then? “It depends what he fancies,” he grins.
“Honestly, it matters far more to me that Osborne would think, ‘Mmm, that’s really nice’. While politics is really important, I’d care far more about cooking prowess. So I’d do him my 14-hour pulled pork South Carolina barbeque. I’d know he, as an American aficionado, would truly appreciate it.”
Balls looks delighted with his answer. In fact, the Labour hard-man loves showing off his softer side. “I used to wear a collarless shirt,” he says, turning to the subject of late-80s pop. “[And I had] Flock of Seagulls’ hair. I used to have to comb it down.”
Then it’s back to karaoke. Elvis’s An American Tril-ol-ogy is “distinctly” me, he says. “At our wedding, the two songs were Jerusalem and Elvis’s Can’t Help Falling in Love.” He croons: “‘Wise men say only fools rush in…’ We had the whole congregation singing Elvis.” We never quite make it to the subject of his dancing skills. The shadow chancellor is late for his next meeting.
“Right, I’d better go see the leader of the Labour Party,” Balls says. It seems he’s kept Ed Miliband waiting while we chatted cakes and karaoke. No one looks especially worried. Remember, Ed Balls lost the election, but he got the office.