Ed Balls is the one Labour politician virtually every Tory loves to hate. He gets under their skin like no other. The very sight of him sends them into paroxysms of vitriol. He is also, it has to be said, not the most popular figure in the Labour Party. But despite all that, he has transformed himself from being chiefly seen as Gordon Brown’s chief henchman, into a politician who is both formidable and, in my opinion, rather impressive. Let me explain. Deep breath…
The transformation started back in 2010 when Balls stood for the party leadership. He soon realised that he had no chance of winning, yet instead of giving up he began to enjoy himself. And by the end of the campaign, most pundits came to the conclusion that he had run the best campaign of all the contenders. He and his advisers sat down and analysed his problems and came up with a strategy to reinvent him. It couldn’t be done overnight, it would take time, but the objective was to relaunch Ed Balls as a politician with a human touch. He was fed up with being regarded as someone who was as popular as a fart in a lift, even among his own colleagues. He knew he had to break free from Gordon Brown’s shadow and his reputation as an out and out bully, which had dogged him for years. So, together with his press adviser Alex Belardinelli, he launched a charm offensive. And for once it really was all charm and less of the offensive.
We got to learn that Ed is a great cook. He spoke of his love for Norwich City FC. He outed himself as someone who had overcome a stutter. He raised a lot of money for two charities by running the London marathon. He took piano lessons. He displayed a very well developed sense of humour in interviews, which thus far had not been let loose on an unsuspecting public. I even got him to play the piano live on air. The look of terror in his eyes was something to behold. His advisers were less than impressed by our surprise stunt, but I maintain to this day that it did his image the world of good.
In tandem with this, his political profile rose inexorably. When Alan Johnson resigned as Shadow Chancellor Ed Miliband felt he had to turn to Ed Balls, despite himself. He knew the risks, but had been impressed by Balls’ tenacity and doggedness. Miliband knew there would inevitably be stories about Balls wanting his job. he knew they looked at economic policy rather differently. It was, in some ways, a courageous appointment. Balls recognised that too, and in two years there have been very few occasions when opponents or journalists could detect and rift between them.
In short, since 2010 Ed Balls has become a politician on the front line of British politics. He’s respected and feared by the Conservatives. They try to pretend that he is their biggest asset. Some may really believe that, but for most it is pure bravado. He knows how to needle Tories, he knows which buttons to press to rile them and his attacks invariably hit home.
So, why am I writing this? Because I was incredulous when I read Anthony Seldon’s open letter in the New Statesman (read it in full HERE) which calls on Balls to fall on his sword and resign from the Shadow Cabinet. Seldon is a Biteback author and a brilliant contemporary historian, but on this, I think his views are entirely misplaced. Here is an extract…
I was not your headmaster, but as somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword. After 20 unbroken years at the heart of politics, you need a rest… You need to see more of life beyond the microworld of politics. Falling on one’s sword is never easy. However, quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself. Let me explain. Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand… Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. I know that you think you were really a very nice person all along, vulnerable with your own insecurities. Yet you need to redeem yourself and the atonement will never happen unless you disappear and return to public life with a fresh persona. The party would be more inclusive without you. Yvette would not say it to you but, like many women working in the same organisation as their husband, she would be freer to think and act without you in her hair. The greatest beneficiary would be you. You may not see it this way now but I know you will in hindsight. If Labour loses in 2015, you will be blamed and your career will be damaged beyond repair. If it wins, you would return to the front bench in 2017 a redeemed and respected figure. You might even one day become leader, your long-held ambition. Oh, and don’t believe that guff about “skipping a generation”. The public will tire of young leaders, though it doesn’t yet realise it. Others, including Ed Miliband, share responsibility for the Brown errors: you will earn praise for taking the hit. You are 46 this month. Your best years could lie ahead of you.
I’m not sure Ed and Anthony will be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon! On the fact of it, Seldon says some things which might have some merit in them but he doesn’t consider the disbenefits of Balls falling on his sword, and they are many. Would Ed Miliband want a sore Ed Balls on the backbenches? Who would he replace him with?His brother? Therein lie more dangers than keeping Ed Balls in the job. I may not agree with many of his conclusions, but Ed Balls does know something about economics and is very capable of debating his points to good effect. He’s got a good political brain and isn’t afraid to mix it. He’s also a good lightning conductor for Ed Miliband. The media is more likely to stick the boot into him than go for the leader.
It is true that Ed Balls was damaged by his poor performance responding to George Osborne’s Autumn statement, but one bad performance cannot disguise the fact that Ed Balls would be in any objective observer’s list of Britain’s Top 10 Most Influential Politicians. Why on earth would someone in that list fall on their sword?