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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 I

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 11 February 2009 at 01:02 pm
Here is the first half of my profile of the Schools Secretary for this month's GQ magazine. It is not on the GQ website, which has other stuff that no one is interested in, such as pictures of Jennifer Aniston with not many clothes on, but as the March GQ is now out, I post this as a matter of historical interest.

Ed Balls wants to be prime minister. Not surprising, really. With few exceptions, anyone who wants to be an MP wants to be PM. Most of them quickly realise that it will never happen and get used to the idea that the highest they will rise is chairman of the Select Committee For Sounding Serious On Newsnight. For a few, though, the fire continues to burn. In some, it burns like a furnace, releasing energy and surrounding the bearer with an aura. We can all sense it. We know that Ed Balls’ eyes – the intensity of which is his most striking feature – are fixed firmly on the next election. Not the general election; the Labour leadership election. That is much of what we need to know to understand the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families; also known as the other half of Gordon Brown’s brain; or the man who had hoped to be chancellor of the exchequer by now.

He got where he is today the same way Tony Blair and Brown got to the top: by attaching himself to a patron. Blair stuck to Neil Kinnock like a baby brother and then made himself the impatient nephew to “uncle” John Smith. Brown endured his dysfunctional marriage to Blair until he inherited the family home. Balls was Brown’s most trusted advisor for 14 years. This was the strategy that gave him a safe Labour seat, Normanton, in 2005 and, two years later, when Brown finally made it, a seat in the Cabinet.
So Ed Balls’ political career began in 1992, when Brown spotted him. The Conservative government’s European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) policy had just collapsed and, although few people noticed at the time, Shadow Chancellor Brown was up the same creek as the Tories and similarly without paddle. Brown had been as fierce as the government in his support for ERM membership. What was he to do now? Edward Balls, a 25-year-old leader-writer at the Financial Times, had the answer.
A month after the ERM crisis, Balls and Brown discussed a policy that was compatible with support for a single currency in principle, which set out rules for controlling inflation – including, ultimately, independence for the Bank of England. His ideas quickly filled the vacuum where Brown’s ERM policy used to be. One friend speculates that Brown was uncomfortable with macro-economics, preferring the micro stuff of labour market reform, whereas Balls, with the arrogance of youth, was confident with big abstractions. The next year, Brown offered him a job as his economic advisor. As ambitious people do, Balls took advice widely. Martin Wolf, associate editor at the FT, thought he had such a bright future at the newspaper that he advised against it. William Keegan, economics editor of the Observer, told him to take it. Will Hutton, then economics editor of the Guardian, could not decide.
In retrospect, it was an obvious choice, although it took a little while to get used to working for Brown. One friend from the world of journalism Balls had left behind recalls lunch with him just after he had started. Balls complained about how “cliquey” the Brown operation was and the difficult nature of his working style. A little later, Balls dined with his companion again. “How is the cliquishness?” Balls bristled: “Well, some people say that about Gordon, but it is not true.”
The reprogramming had been quickly completed. Balls and Charlie “Free” Whelan, Brown’s press officer, made a formidable team by the time Labour leader John Smith died. They were a buccaneering duo, having the time of their lives at the centre of a high political drama. But they could not defy the force of magnetism that lifted Blair to the leadership and they devoted themselves to building up their champion as the powerful and inevitable successor. Whelan was an early victim of the Blair-Brown relationship, already broken by the time Labour came into government in 1997. But Balls remained a central, if largely unseen, figure in that government throughout.
He was the principal architect of Brown’s single most acclaimed policy – independence for the Bank of England. And he played a leading role in framing another policy during the 1997 election campaign. As part of New Labour’s courtship of the Tory press, Brown met Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail. It turned out the one thing that bothered the ageing magnate was the quarantine laws making it hard to take his dog on holiday. As Brown and Whelan looked puzzled, Balls explained that Labour was consulting on a very important policy, pet passports, which would use a microchip embedded in the animal’s skin to identify it as rabies-free. Balls knew about it because his father was living in Italy at the time, working for the European Commission, with dogs. He also knew that Tony Blair was having dinner with Lord Rothermere that evening, so he told the Labour leader: “Make sure that you’re on top of the dogs issue.” As one of those involved confirms, “It is fair to say that our policy hardened up over those few hours.” 
Blair’s relationship with Balls was not usually so fruitful, and it got worse. One aide who worked for Blair at Number Ten said: “I respect him but I don’t like him.” Just in case I missed it: “I really did dislike him.” Why? “Fundamentally he is an intellectual bully. The tone was hectoring.” Yes, but, I asked naively, was he personally offensive? Hollow laughter. I was told how he would belittle civil servants, for example, when they came to the Treasury asking for more money. “You are complete tossers,” he would say. “You haven’t got a grip.”
I have lost count of the number of Blair’s former advisors who have said that there were times when they could not bear to be in the same room as Balls. His rudeness and his bearing of grudges were said to “reflect and reinforce the worst aspects of Gordon”. One MP who came to the House with a reputation as a Blairite told me that Balls has never said hello when their paths cross. This is, you will observe, the one known exception to the rule that everything about him can be explained by the requirements of the next Labour leadership election. These requirements include being incredibly nice to Labour MPs even if you don’t like them because their votes are worth 500 times those of party members in Labour’s electoral college.
Balls was a hate-figure for Blair himself, and the antipathy was mutual. The former prime minister is convinced that both Brown and Balls were up to their elbows in the blood of the September coup in 2006 that finally forced Blair to hand in his 12 months’ notice.
When Brown took over, Balls’ relationship with his patron changed. It was understood by Brown that Balls saw himself as his natural successor, and both of them wanted Balls to be chancellor of the exchequer. But they realised that it would be a promotion too far – Balls was only a junior Treasury minister at the time. So Balls was allowed to create his own department, renaming the larger part of education with the aim of handling a big “delivery” job and of softening his image – “I realise I attract caricature,” he told aides.
One friend and observer told me something else that I think is crucial: “There was a bit of a fracture in the relationship between Gordon and Ed over the non-election.” Balls thought Brown should have gone for broke in October 2007. Asked about it a year later, he said: “We are where we are. The prime minister made a choice. He has said himself he should have made the position clearer at an earlier stage. There were always risks both ways. A decision was made.”
There was another reason for a certain cooling between them. Only a few weeks later, Brown made a speech in which he identified more than 600 schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils get five good GCSEs, and said they faced “ever tougher measures” including “complete closure”. This came as a surprise to the schools and even, apparently, to Balls, who should have seen the speech beforehand. One top educationalist told me that “perceptions [of Balls] changed overnight from someone who had made a good start to someone who had made a terrible mistake”.
He had made a good start. He does have charm. It is just that he doesn’t always use it in case it runs the batteries down. He is good with children. As Santa at the Parliamentary Lobby Christmas party at Number Eleven, he was a hit: Blinky became Twinkly. Not only that, he had his own Santa costume. He also impressed education journalists, teachers’ unions and education authorities. His policy priorities have been an odd mix of nanny statism and Blairite reform. He has brought in compulsory cookery classes, a future rise in the education-leaving age to 18 and a target for walking (“an extra 15 billion steps a day”), while pressing ahead with academy schools. But no one can say he is not serious. One Blairite insider concedes that he has “matured”, and that “civil servants jump to what he wants”.
Until recently, the plan was that he should be chancellor by now. And by plan I mean joint plan with Brown. Fractured relationship or not, Balls was still the only minister to see the prime minister at his holiday house in Southwold last year. But the plan was put on hold when Lehman Brothers went bust in September. It would not have been sensible to move Alistair Darling with the financial system in bin bags outside Canary Wharf and Wall Street offices.
Despite that, Balls is now well placed to contest the leadership of his party when the chance comes. There is no question that he will try to seize his chance. He has moved beyond being his patron’s creature to being a big beast in his own right. The ruthlessness and determination that for years was deployed for Brown is now pressing his own cause. He always said that Brown’s advancement was a means to a Labour end; just as his own ambition is now. So where did this drive and tribal Labour loyalty come from?

(Continued in next post.)

Comments

Obtuse?
shanghai7 wrote:
Thursday, 12 February 2009 at 10:27 am (UTC)
Why has this appeared after part Two?Or am I being obtuse?Or did a Slovakian idiot called Martin sabotage your laptop too?
Re: Obtuse?
j_rentoul wrote:
Thursday, 12 February 2009 at 10:37 am (UTC)
Well, on my computer the most recent post comes above the others, so I thought it made more sense this way round.
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