Ed Balls speaks at the CBI conference in London last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls's pitch to business: Labour can save the UK from EU withdrawal

Shadow chancellor's comments suggest mood in the party is hardening against an in/out referendum.

Ed Balls's interview with Progress, in which he says of the Lib Dems: "I’m not going to let them off the hook", is being presented by some as a retreat from his recent comments on Nick Clegg in my NS interview. But a close reading shows nothing has changed: while remaining fiercely critical of the Lib Dems' record in government (as he was last month), Balls is still no longer making Clegg's head the price of any future coalition agreement. As he says: "He made some remarks over Christmas about personalities. I’m not going to get involved in playing personality politics, I have no personal animosity to Nick Clegg."

Rather than Balls's comments on the Lib Dems, it's his remarks on the EU that are most striking. In the course of rejecting the claim that Labour is "anti-business", he says: 

The most pro-business thing about Labour at the moment is that we are the only pro-European party of government. What the Conservatives have done by putting party interest before national interest is deeply dangerous and actually if you sat around with a group of businesspeople and ask 'what are you most worried about?', they’re worried about a Conservative party allowing us to sleepwalk and drift away from Europe. It’s a massively dangerous proposition. Only Labour can save the country from that Conservative anti-Europeanism.

Balls is certainly right that many businesses are far more worried about the threat of EU withdrawal (as a result of the in/out referendum promised by the Tories in 2017) than they are about Labour's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

That Balls has chosen to point out as much is significant. The shadow chancellor is one of the senior Labour figures who has come closest to promising a referendum, warning in 2013 that "if we allow ourselves either to be the 'status quo party' on Europe, or the 'anti-referendum party' on Europe, then we’ve got a problem...I think we would be pretty stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those positions". But his latest remarks suggest that he believes the national interest demands that Labour unambiguously commit to EU membership.

This shift in tone reflects a wider hardening of the mood against an in/out referendum. As I revealed last week, Labour will almost certainly avoid promising a public vote in its general election manifesto, with one senior strategist suggesting that the position would likely be identical to that offered at the European elections in May. 

Separately, one shadow cabinet minister told me that Ed Miliband was "instinctively opposed" to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by an unpredictable vote. A public decision to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would badly damage his authority. 

Far from being a clever ruse to enhance the party's standing, a Labour pledge would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband is dancing to his tune. As the Labour leader himself said when James Wharton's EU referendum bill was being debated in the Commons: "I think what we see today is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country." 

Balls's comments are further evidence that Labour will hold this line through the general election campaign. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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