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Origins of the Cameron-Balls Feud

John Rentoul

eb2 252x300 Origins of the Cameron Balls FeudIn tracing the origins of David Cameron’s hostility towards Ed Balls, I couldn’t dredge my profile of the shadow chancellor – he was then Children’s Secretary – for GQ, March 2009, from the internet. So I reproduce it here, because it includes the bit about Balls taking the fourth highest First in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in his year, “a higher first than a contemporary at Brasenose whom he did not know, David Cameron”.

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?

***

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.”

Tagged in:
  • dumbganda

    He is so bright he cannot read.

  • dumbganda

    He finds it hard to read fluently from a text

    Did he do GCSE English?

  • Richard_SM

    [On 24 March 2011 George Osborne] told the BBC that was the “right thing to do to try to preserve investment and jobs in that industry if the oil price were to fall”.


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