Ed Balls: "Boris is less of a statesman and more of a buffoon"

A sneak preview of my interview with the shadow chancellor for this week's magazine.

I've interviewed Ed Balls for this week's New Statesman -- out on the newsstands on Thursday.

Here are a few comments from the shadow chancellor that might not make it into the final piece:

1) On the TUC rally and Boris Johnson

The shadow chancellor seemed pretty annoyed with Boris Johnson's Telegraph column yesterday -- on the subject of Saturday's TUC march and the violent protests -- in which the Mayor of London claimed that "Balls and Miliband will feel quietly satisfied by the disorder":

I thought it was an outrageous thing to say. It was a deeply irresponsible thing to say. I was quite shocked. Boris's problem is he spends so much time attacking David Cameron that he probably thought he had to attack someone else for a change. He is less of a statesman and more of a buffoon and I think he should withdraw those comments.

Balls, who criticised Sky News for its alleged bias in an interview with me ahead of the 2010 general election, says that he understands the demands of the 24-hour news channels. He is, nonetheless, critical of the media coverage of Saturday's rally and the decision by the BBC and Sky News to cut away from Ed Miliband's speech in order to show the protests in Oxford Street:

The idea that a peaceful, broad-based demo of over a quarter of million people should be overshadowed by 200 or so immature idiots is wrong and very frustrating.

Asked if Labour been damaged by Miliband's decision to address the TUC rally in Hyde Park, Balls says:

You should give the public more credit -- the TUC, the marchers and the police were very clear in their public statements about the differences between the two groups.

As for the violent "anarchists" on Oxford Street, Balls says, "They probably hate me and Ed Miliband more than they hate David Cameron and George Osborne."

2) On Libya and the cost of military action:

Balls supports the military action against the Gaddafi regime but is critical of the Chancellor's decision to try to predict the costs in advance:

George Osborne was unwise when he said at Treasury questions that this operation would only cost tens of millions of pounds. It shows that he is obviously defensive about the cost. He can't possibly know that it will only cost tens of millions of pounds; it could turn out to cost much more and go on much longer than he thinks. The right thing to say is that we cannot know the cost. It's a little like him saying that the economy is "out of the danger zone".

And in a swipe at the Tories' analogy of the Budget deficit with a credit-card account, the shadow chancellor adds:

If, two years ago, the credit card had been maxed out, we wouldn't now be able to go to war in Libya. If the nation was trying to run this war on the basis of its credit card, then it would be in trouble. It just shows what vacuous tosh all that Conservative language is.

You'll have to wait till Thursday, however, and the publication of the print edition of the magazine to read Balls's views on Ed Miliband, Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and the structural deficit . . .

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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad