Careful -- it would be a mistake to write off Ed Balls

The former schools secretary has a good chance of succeeding his ex-boss as Labour leader.

So Ed Balls has finally declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the media's preferred candidate. And some Labour MPs, too, accuse him of being a bully, a schemer and a behind-the-scenes briefer, lacking in charisma, divisive, too close to Gordon Brown and an unreconstructed tribalist. But as I wrote on the Guardian's Comment is Free site during the election campaign:

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre right to the centre left of the Labour Party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical -- opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps -- although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

The same journalists, commentators and MPs who wrote off Gordon Brown for three years, and wrongly assumed GB would be toppled by a coup, or resign in shame, or be humiliated on 6 May in a landslide defeat, now write off Balls, claiming he has no chance.

There is no doubt that the former schools secretary faces an uphill struggle against the Miliband brothers -- especially David, the clear front-runner and highest-profile candidate. But as the Guardian's John Harris -- no fan of Balls -- points out today on Cif:

Thus far, he [Balls] seems to be positioning himself as the poster boy for the less-than-erogenous Labour zone where dog-whistle toughness of the John Reid/Hazel Blears variety meets union-friendly Labourism.

The chatterati may scoff, but to the people who kept their party cards while all around were tearing theirs up, that will have a real appeal.

Meanwhile, the new labour-uncut website makes this observation:

Balls is also the one who has done the most work over the last five years. He's the only one who's been assiduously traipsing round the Friday night rubber chicken circuit of local Labour parties since 2005.

He has made the most effort to court the unions, and starts ahead in that section of the electoral college. And he has worked harder than David Miliband, though perhaps not than Ed, at convincing his fellow Labour MPs to like him.

Oh yes, let's not forget the support of the unions -- in particular, Unite.

But Balls's first challenge will be to gather together the necessary 33 signatures from fellow MPs in order to stand next week. Some newspapers have claimed he is struggling to get above 15 MPs, but a source in the Balls camp claims "we're pretty much there already. We're just not putting them all into the public domain at once."

Interestingly, among Balls's declared supporters is the Blairite former defence minister Eric Joyce, who resigned from the Brown government over the handling of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as I've written before, Balls isn't as divisive or tribal a figure as is often assumed in the Westminster village.

Either way, my message to the Miliband brothers and the media: you write him off at your peril.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.