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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

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The ambition of Mr Balls, part II

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 11 February 2009 at 11:35 am
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has hit a slight bump on the road to the Labour leadership. When No 10 has to put out a clarifying statement, and then he has to do an interview to clarify what he said earlier, you know he's in trouble.

The bump wasn't felt at first because no one from the national media was at his speech on Saturday where he departed from his text to say: 

This is a financial crisis more extreme and more serious than that of the 1930s and we all remember how the politics of that era were shaped by the economy. The reality is that this is becoming the most serious global recession for, I’m sure, over 100 years – as it will turn out.

When it was picked up from the Yorkshire Post on Monday, No 10 put out a statement: 
He is not suggesting the impact on the real economy here or elsewhere will be worse than the 1930s.

Yesterday Balls himself tried to reinterpret his own words in a BBC interview. He was talking about "the worst financial crisis certainly for 100 years … this global financial recession", he said (oh no, he wasn't).

But he'll get over it. The extraordinary thing about Ed Balls is how well placed he is to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader after defeat at the next election. I didn't really believe it myself until I started work on a profile of him for this month's GQ magazine. The article is not online at, but, as the March issue is now out, I reproduce it here.

Or I would: it seems it is too long for Live Journal software. I'll have to post Part 2 here, Part 1 next so that they appear in the right order.

 Ed’s father, Professor Michael Balls, a zoologist of international reputation, is “very opinionated and very bright”, according to Ian Gibson, a family friend who is Labour MP for Norwich North. “That is where Ed gets it from, I think.” Michael Balls has dedicated his professional life to finding alternatives to experiments on animals. He is a rumbustious critic of the scientific establishment; a Christian; opposed to the experimental use of embryos; a Eurosceptic (although he once worked for the European Commission on its policy on animal experiments); and a supporter of the Iraq invasion.
Ed was brought up in Norwich and moved to Nottingham when he was eight. Gibson, a fellow biologist who met Michael Balls in California where they were both doing postgraduate research, got him a job at the new radical-chic University of East Anglia. Ed’s father became a Labour activist and secretary of the campaign in Norfolk to abolish the 11-plus exam. The son’s first political memory was of the three-day week, although, aged six, it was the thrill of candles rather than of a country brought to its knees by trade union disputes that must have made an impression. The two elections of 1974, when Ed was seven, defined his partisan background; his was a political household, which put up posters and Ed delivered leaflets.
But his father’s views on education were not predictable. For a term in the early Seventies, he taught at Eton on an exchange scheme between the school and university. Gibson says he harangued Balls Senior: “I tried to stop Mike Balls doing this sabbatical when I was on the university senate. I said, ‘What’s going on here? Here’s the man who fought the 11-plus bloody well going to Eton.’” Balls told him to get lost, Gibson recalls. “We used to bounce off each other all the time.” They are still firm friends and Norwich City supporters. So the Balls family moved to Eton and Ed, five, started his schooling at a state primary in Windsor. His father had to wear a white bow tie every day, although he had to get Ed’s mother to tie it. Worse was to come, from Gibson’s point of view, because, when the Balls family moved to Nottingham, Ed went to a private secondary school, Nottingham High School. This involved some financial sacrifice. Ed’s father was on an academic’s salary, and Ed’s sister, two years younger than him, and brother, seven years younger, were also educated privately. To help pay the fees Ed’s mother Carolyn took a job at the Queen’s Hospital Medical School in the pharmacy stores. It seems that she was keener on private education than her husband: “She thought it was the right thing to do,” I am told. The family could not afford foreign holidays; the first time Ed went abroad was when he was 18, and his first time in an aeroplane was when he was 21.
His sister is called Joanna, which sometimes causes confusion because of her politician brother’s single-transferable joke (STJ) about his surname: “If you think it was bad for me at school, think what it was like for my sister Ophelia.” (You have to say it aloud.) She left school at 16 to work for Midland Bank; brother Andrew followed Ed to the Financial Times, where he once had the same desk. He left the paper’s Washington bureau three years ago to be a fund manager in Newport Beach near Los Angeles. Balls offered a vignette of his respectable adolescence recently when he launched plans to curb young people’s excessive drinking: “When I was 16 or 17, I would have a small glass of wine at lunch on a Sunday or a shandy or a Babycham at Christmas.” He was an intellectually confident teenager, but he had a stammer. There are traces of it today, which is why he prefers to deliver speeches off the cuff or, as he did with his 20-minute address to the Labour conference last year, from memory. He finds it hard to read fluently from a text, even off the autocue screens that he calls “dummy boards”.
He won a place at Keble College, Oxford, where his father had been and where his brother would follow, to read philosophy, politics and economics. The story is often told of how he joined all three political societies when he arrived – Labour, Liberal/SDP Alliance and Conservative. It has become part of the mythology of his unprincipled ambition, which co-exists with the mythology of his tribal Labour factionalism. The second myth is truer than the first. As a boy, Balls loved the Bannermere series of books by Geoffrey Trease. In the final book, Gates Of Bannerdale, the hero, a grammar school boy, goes to Oxford and joins all the clubs because he wants to find out more about politics. Balls, who had joined the Labour Party in Nottingham at the age of 16, says he signed up to all the societies so that he could go to see visiting speakers such as Michael Heseltine and David Steel.
At Keble, he was elected Labour president of the student body, the Junior Common Room. Friends say that this was the only reason he went to the fancy-dress dinner that produced the embarrassing photographs in the Daily Mail of him dressed in a German officer’s uniform. It was an all-male drinking society called the Steamers, although friends say that on the one occasion Balls attended, women were also present. Balls is said to have expressed relief that the Mail has not got hold of other pictures, “that must exist”, of him in a male swimsuit competition.
Balls took the fourth highest first in his year, a higher first than a contemporary at Brasenose whom he did not know, David Cameron. No doubt this gives him some satisfaction now, although at the time he might have been frustrated not to have been among the top three. His glittering career continued as a Kennedy scholar at Harvard, followed by a year as a teaching fellow in the Department of Economics, before he joined the Financial Times.


Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper met at work, and still work in the same organisation. She worked for Labour’s Treasury team when Balls came to work for Gordon Brown. They were married in January 1998, in Eastbourne, home of her parents. A bit like Brown’s cabinet, which has ten extra ministers entitled to attend its meetings, Balls had four best men.
Since Cooper was appointed chief secretary to the Treasury last year, they have been the first husband and wife in the British cabinet, but little fuss is made of it. “As long as you’re careful, it’s fine,” Balls has told his advisors. He leaves public spending negotiations with the Treasury to his junior ministers.
The idea that their political ambitions might collide is similarly waved aside by friends. The Brownites see Balls as the pre-eminent one, and that includes Yvette, I am told. She has been in parliament eight years longer than her husband. Michael Gove, the Conservative who not only shadows Balls now but previously shadowed Cooper as housing minister, says: “Ed Balls is sharper, but she’s a better debater with a lighter touch.” This, though, is mischief rather than political analysis: we have already reached the point where only one of them is a serious contender for the leadership.
Their family life is rather publicly complicated. The children – Ellie, nine, Joe, six, and Maddy, four – go to primary school in north London and spend their weekends in the constituency home in Wakefield. The train journey is a regular Friday and Sunday shuttle, at least for the children. The couple estimated, for the benefit of John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner who investigated the claim that Wakefield was their “main” residence, that “they spent roughly 60 per cent of their days in Yorkshire and 40 per cent of their days in London, and they spent about half their nights in London”. As I say, complicated. How do they do it? The answer seems to be internet shopping, Tesco in Yorkshire and Ocado in London, and high-quality child care. Recently, in a quick-fire questionnaire, Balls was asked: “Where would you like to live?” He replied: “In one place.”
That place, of course, is 10 Downing Street. Until recently, this has been a ridiculous prospect. I couldn’t even finish the question before one aide to the previous prime minister said: “No. No communications skills. No base of support in the party.” But Balls thinks he is getting better at television. And he does have some support in the party. He has always adopted positions just to the left of whatever the New Labour consensus was. And the Team Brown Heavy Mob provides a ready-made base among Labour MPs, although they wobbled badly in the late summer when David Miliband was looming over them, and spent a lot of time discussing whether there could be a better Stop DM candidate than Balls. But the foreign secretary slipped on his own banana at a Labour conference in Manchester. Balls may have helped give his rival a push by coming up with the “No time for a novice” line in Brown’s speech. So he is the Brownites’ preferred option again. And now the main threat from the Blairite side of the party seems to come from James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary. The big question will be, as a shrewd member of David Cameron’s shadow cabinet observes, which of them is the better Tory-basher? Will the Labour Party prefer the aggression of Balls or the more mocking tone of Purnell, welcoming Cameron’s conversion to New Labour values but asking why he should be trusted to stick to them. Balls’ chances are better in a leadership contest that takes place after a Labour defeat than in one that follows a pre-election coup against Brown. No wonder he said recently of his chance of leading his party: “That’s what politics decides. You see what happens.”


veredict wrote:
Friday, 13 February 2009 at 08:13 pm (UTC)
Great article, congratulations.
negotiotior wrote:
Thursday, 28 October 2010 at 10:29 am (UTC)
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