Logger-Eds? Not quite.

The shadow chancellor is no dagger-wielding don.

Those who were there will remember the tension in the room. It was the New Statesman debate at the outset of Labour's arduous leadership election. As Balls interrupted his future leader, Miliband lashed out, "It's just like being back at the Treasury". Balls snapped backk, "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do." The sarcasm hung thick in the air.

Much of the subtext in the final weeks was about how Balls would react to whichever Mili-brother was the victor. If David won, would we see a return to the TB/GBs? A younger Blair vs. Brown? If Mili-Ed won, how would Balls cope with being subservient to a man once his junior when the Treasury was his domain?

As it happened, the younger Miliband won. It was a squeaker. You know the rest. Balls was placed in the Shadow Home Office role, a heavy artillery weapon plonked on Theresa May's lawn. 

It wasn't the role that he wanted. He had too much time on his hands. He longed for the role he was born for. 

The role he had really been running for all the long.

Shadow Chancellor. 

He was publicly loyal, and got on with the job at hand, but few believed he was as happy with his new role as he professed to be.

And then, a twist of fate. Alan Johnson resigned (personal reasons). Balls assumed the role he had always coveted (personal triumph). Once again, Labour's economic policy was in the hands of a giant clunking fist. Johnson had joked of his need for an economic primer. Balls - as anyone who has spent time with the man will attest - has no need for such a rudimentary tome, peppering his conversations with "Ricardian Equivalence" and "Post Neo-Classical Endogenous Growth Theory". Pass the dictionary.

And yet the rumours of Balls-ite plots continued unabated. Yvette Cooper found herself pushed to the fore as Labour's presumptive leader-in-waiting during each one of Ed Miliband's leadership mini-crises. The line went out through the media that this was the work of Balls on behalf of his wife. 

What sexist tosh it was. Yvette Cooper is nothing if not someone who can look after herself. 

The rumours reached a crescendo with what became known as “Lasagne-gate”, where the Balls-Cooper clan reached out to their shadow teams by feeding them. To read the media write ups you'd think this were Labour's latest food-based coup (and they're always food based – always), but nothing came of it besides an opportunity for Balls to refer regularly in public to his 14-hour pulled pork.

The truth and the relationship between the pair of Eds has always been more mundane. 

Last year, around twelve months after that fiesty New Statesman exchange, I was speaking at an event in Parliament. Half way through, Ed Balls appeared at the back of the room, trying to catch the attention of an MP, before disappearing with an almost cartoonish grin on his face. Thirty seconds later, the door at the front of the room swung open. Laughter echoed in the corridor, and in came not only Balls, but Miliband too. Smiling, laughing, joking like friends. But with no cameras about, no need to put on a show.

Since then, this is a side to the “Two Eds” that has been seen more often and more publicly. They're a strong double act in front of both public and press. They seem comfortable in each other's company. They compliment each other. They look, it is possible to say, like a team.

And so it was surprising today to read Rachel Sylvester writing today in the Times that the relationship is strained. There is a “tension” between the two, we are told. There's more “reciprocated mistrust than mutual respect”. 

That's possible, perhaps, but it relies on us believing that both Balls and Miliband are great actors. For the avoidance of doubt, neither man is going to be winning a BAFTA any time soon. 

Similarly, Sylvester states that, “Mr Balls’s hint that the party might support a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU did not go down well with other Shadow Cabinet ministers.” The reality, again, is boringly mundane. Balls discussed Labour's EU referendum line with Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander weeks ago. It was, as the parlance goes, “the line”. 

Yet it's not hard to see why these briefings against Balls are coming in. They are no doubt borne out of frustration with the iron grip that the Shadow Chancellor and his team have over public spending commitments. As I wrote back in December:

Nothing that could even notionally impinge on economic policy is put forward without the explicit say-so of the shadow chancellor – a cause for silent frustration for many seeking to make their mark around the shadow cabinet table.

That frustration, it would seem, is rather less silent than it once was. The weapon used for retribution is a blunt and well used implement – Balls-as-Brownite-bruiser with his “bovver boys” and “punishment beatings”. Perhaps this once rang true – heaven knows Balls is no angel – but it's no longer the powerful line of attack it once was. Balls is an operator, sure, but a dagger-wielding don? To what end?

But if Sylvester is right (which, for further avoidance of doubt, I don't think she is), then would it really be so bad if a leader and his key economic spokesperson were at loggerheads? Blair and Brown may have loathed each other, but the “creative tension” that threatened to crack the walls between Number 10 and Number 11 was responsible for a (perhaps never to be repeated) triplicate of election wins. By contrast, the current PM and his Chancellor are bosom-buddies, with Osborne preferring the role of Mandelsonian strategist to the position of economic Stakanovite. A part-time chancellor propping up a “chillaxed” PM.

Sometimes a little creative tension goes a long way.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of LabourList

Best of buds? Eds Miliband and Balls. Photo: Getty Images
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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution