Sunday, July 04, 2004
Profile - Ed Balls, the voice in Gordon's ear
Posted by David Smith at 08:59 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

Ten minutes into a conversation about his future, his Treasury office littered with packing cases and piles of books and papers, Ed Balls’s phone rings. It is Gordon Brown.

“Can you see whether it’s possible to talk later?” he asks one of his staff. It is: the chancellor goes away, and the conversation continues.

This weekend, the most influential unelected member of the Labour government is beginning a new life. If, before his departure last year, Alastair Campbell was the real deputy prime minister, Balls was until last week the real deputy chancellor.

But on Wednesday he was chosen as Labour’s candidate for Normanton, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Nothing is certain in politics but it would take a political earthquake to prevent him becoming an MP at the next election. Bill O’Brien, the incumbent, has a 10,000 majority and won 56% of the vote in 2001.

For Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper, things have worked out neatly. Now a junior minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, she has been MP for the neighbouring constituency of Pontefract and Castleford since 1997.

Things have also worked out in another way too. The day after his selection meeting in Normanton, she began her maternity leave for their third child, due later this month.

Life for the couple has already been a case of juggling two homes — one in Canonbury in north London, and the other in Castleford — and their children, Ellie, 5, and Joe, 3. Had Balls been selected for a seat elsewhere, the juggling could have become impossible.

Balls and Cooper married in 1998 at an Eastbourne wedding attended by new Labour aristocracy and are still in their thirties. They are the party’s rising power couple, although they incurred the wrath of the Blairs by disclosing that their children had had the MMR jabs. Political pundits predict that they will be facing each other across the cabinet table by 2010, the first husband-and-wife team to do so.

That may be why Balls, already as close to the centre of power as it is possible to be, is choosing to climb the greasy pole, having taken the backroom route until now.

A leader writer at the Financial Times, he was lured by Brown in 1994 and given early prominence by a witty Michael Heseltine jibe for littering his master’s speech with economic gobbledygook: “it’s not Brown, it’s Balls”. The young adviser had already made his mark with a Fabian Society pamphlet arguing the case for Bank of England independence. That was one of Brown’s first and most successful acts as chancellor.

Not long afterwards he elevated Balls to the role of Treasury chief economic adviser. In his early thirties (he is 37 now) he was in a job normally reserved for people at least 20 years his senior and with decades of Treasury experience. The mandarins had never seen anything like it but they soon realised that if they were going to work with Brown, they mainly had to do it through Balls.

In the past seven years he has been the chancellor’s point man in the Treasury, holding all the important meetings with officials and grinding out the details of policy.

It is a sign of the importance of his role that his departure has led to a Treasury shake-up, with two people — fellow adviser Ed Miliband and Michael Ellam, an official — taking his place.

Now he thinks the time is right to make the switch. Advisers advise but ministers decide, Margaret Thatcher once said. Advisers are lucky to get a mention in the footnotes; ministers merit top billing.

For Edward Michael Balls, it is another step on what seems a journey to the highest office. Born in Norwich in 1967 — he still supports the football team and is a bruising footballer himself — “Eddie” Balls grew up in Nottingham and attended the city’s high school, Kenneth Clarke’s alma mater.

His father, the zoologist Professor Michael Balls, was chairman of the Labour party’s local ward and his youthful son became a party member and the ward’s education officer. At Keble College, Oxford, where he studied PPE, he joined the political societies of all the parties. But it was clear where his loyalties lay.

A spell in America, studying for a postgraduate degree at Harvard under Larry Summers (later Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary), taught him a lesson for the future. Just as America’s Democrats could get on with business and talk without embarrassment of championing enterprise, so could new Labour.

In opposition, Brown and Balls, supplemented by the acerbic former union press officer Charlie Whelan, were formidable, combining rapid rebuttal and criticism of the government with the development of a fully worked policy framework. After 18 years in opposition, most Labour ministers had little idea how to run a department. Most areas of policy were undeveloped. But Brown, assisted by Balls, was ready from day one.

Cheered into the Treasury building by hundreds of officials in May 1997, some of those civil servants soon had a shock. New Labour’s takeover of the Treasury was a bloodless coup. Lord Burns, its permanent secretary, soon left. For people closely associated with the long period of Tory rule it was highly unsettling.

Officials expected to tell the new ministers and advisers how to run things. Instead it was the other way round. Things soon settled down, the Treasury realising that in Brown it had a chancellor who was going to re-establish the department’s dominance. Balls’s elevation thereafter caused little trouble.

New Labour’s Treasury team were also new lads. Whelan, Balls and Brown regularly decamped to the Park Lane apartment of the millionaire industrialist turned politician Geoffrey Robinson to watch football. But Whelan and Robinson were soon gone and Balls is the last of the lads to leave.

Balls has witnessed the Blair-Brown relationship at first hand. He could have sat at the Granita table at which the pair did the deal over the party leadership in 1994 but, sensing which way the wind was blowing, chose to be elsewhere.

He has not, unlike Campbell, kept a diary and says he has no plans to write memoirs. If he did, those expecting the details of hand-to-hand combat between prime minister and chancellor would be disappointed.

Even he will admit there have been arguments. But the swearing rants and the sulking bouts, he will prudently declare, are mainly the stuff of fiction, or carried out strictly behind closed doors. He insists that he has never witnessed a shouting match between the two men.

Yet the feuding does go on at one remove. At the last Labour party conference Brown’s speech was widely interpreted as being an ill-concealed bid for Blair’s job. Observers were astounded by the bitter briefing and counter-briefing conducted by their closest acolytes — sometimes in the same small room. Ed was never far away.

He and Brown devised the five economic tests on euro membership — allegedly in the back of a New York taxi — which he insists are the right approach, though euro-enthusiasts argue they were a deliberate obstacle to membership. “They were neither a block on entry not a ramp to take us in,” he insists.

Eurosceptic commentators in the press, however, were pointed with a wink in the direction of another old Fabian pamphlet — one suspicious of euro entry — Balls had written some years earlier. Somehow nobody expects him to be campaigning for a yes vote in a euro referendum soon, and neither does he.

Is he getting out just in time, before the economy hits trouble? The housing market is historically prone to boom and bust though he claims not to fear a crash, not least because the Bank of England would cut interest rates quickly to head it off.

He has been practising for the political circuit with after-dinner speeches at local chambers of commerce. But on the evidence of his performance on Newsnight last week he has a way to go before he can master the art of the television interview — his old stammer returned to haunt him.

He will become a fellow of the Smith Institute, the Brownite think tank set up in memory of John Smith, and this will cover part of his lost salary.

How will Brown be without his right-hand man? Balls has been close to Gordon for 10 years. He’s not suddenly going to stop being close to him.

On cue, the phone rings again. It is Brown once more, desperate for a word before he catches a plane. “I’d better take this,” says Balls. Maybe his new life won’t be so different after all.

From The Sunday Times, July 4 2004

Comments

I wonder if you can help me to make contact with Ed Balls? I am the Education Officer at Chester Cathedral and organise a Sixth Form Conference each year. This year's subject is planned to be "Make Poverty History" and I am hoping to ask him if there is any possibility that he would be willing to have input into the conference.
Many thanks!

Posted by: Judy Davies at January 4, 2005 10:29 AM

Dear Ed,

Congratulations for your victory and for your nomination. I wish you good luck and good success.

I would be delighted to meet you again.

Jean-Louis Bianco

Posted by: Jean-Louis Bianco at May 13, 2005 10:29 AM