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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times