Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Who's who on Team Balls

The men and women behind the shadow chancellor. 

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Ed Balls, one of the biggest beasts of British politics. But who are the men and women behind the shadow chancellor? Balls's loyal and respected team have never been profiled before; here, they are. 

Gary Follis, Chief of Staff

A former Labour Lambeth councillor and special adviser to Gordon Brown's chief whip Nick Brown, Follis has wide experience having worked as head of policy and public affairs at Nationwide and in the equivalent role at Alliance and Leicester for four years. Earlier in his career, he cut his teeth as European and political officer at Amicus (now Unite). 

Follis, who joined Balls in 2012, is well-known in Westminster, so much so that he was mistakenly canvassed by an aspiring Labour MP during the shadow cabinet elections in 2010. His role includes high-level business liaison with chief executives and chairmen. 

Alex Belardinelli, Head of Communications

Belardinelli has now been at Balls's side for nearly a decade. Well-regarded by the Westminster lobby for his straight manner and work ethic, he is also "liked and respected" by Ed Miliband in the words of one Labour adviser. As well as handling day-to-day relations with the media, Belardinelli works on long-term strategy and all of Balls's major interventions. He attends the daily morning meeting with senior party staff and Miliband's chief aides. "The truth is if you want to get something done by Ed [Balls] you need to get him on board first," a source told me. 

He has been nicknamed "Benelli" by some journalists after losing the "lard" by shedding three stone last year. He recently became engaged to Ellie Gellard (also known as BevaniteEllie), who works as head of communications for the charity 4Children. Belardinelli is distinct among special advisers as a prolific tweeter, using the site to promote policy announcements and favourable stories as well as for rapid rebuttal. 

Before joining Balls during his time as a Treasury minister in 2006, he worked as press and parliamentary officer for the Child Poverty Action Group, press officer for Labour MEP Michael Cashman and national campaigns and membership office for Labour Students. 

Karim Palant, Head of Policy

Palant is the man responsible for ensuring the "iron discipline" pledged by Balls. No policy or spending commitment passes without his approval. The former Labour Students chair, who has worked for Balls since 2010, first came to his attention as Labour's education policy officer during his time as schools secretary.

As well as working closely with the leader's office on policy development and liaising with business, Palant is the author of most of the shadow chancellor's one-liners. When Balls was recently called a "clicky-wristed snidey cunt" by Russell Brand, it was Palant who devised the riposte that Brand was "a pound shop Ben Elton". He has known Belardinelli for 15 years since their time together in Labour Students. 

Stephanie Driver, Head of Events

Driver, who accompanied Balls on the day I spent with him in Cardiff, recently joined the team after the long-serving Balshen Izzet became chief executive of Action for Stammering Children (the charity on behalf of whom the shadow chancellor ran three London marathons). She previously served as Labour's south west regional press officer and has also worked at party HQ and for Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

She is responsible for organising Balls's many constituency visits ("his diary is always filled to the nth degree," a shadow cabinet minister told me) and has already visited 40 key seats with him since the start of the year. Well-liked at party HQ and in the regions, Driver will be on the road with Balls every day of the short campaign. 

Jon Newton, Senior Parliamentary Researcher 

Newton ensures Balls is briefed for meetings and is also responsible for IT and managing junior staff and interns. "He fixes everything," one source tells me. Over the years a number of interns - often Leeds University students working in Balls's office as part of their course - have won permanent positions. Newton did several training runs with Balls before last year's London Marathon, finishing an hour and half ahead of him on the day. 

Julie McCandless, Diary Manager

McCandless makes Belardinelli look like a newcomer. She has worked for Balls since he entered the Treasury as chief adviser to Gordon Brown in 1997, first as a civil servant and then as his diary manager after he became schools secretary in 2007. "Without her the whole operation would fall apart," a source told me. 

Balls recently revealed an act of thrift worthy of his zero-based spending review. "On the day I was leaving in 2004 [to stand as an MP], she said to me: 'There's something I've got to tell you. It's difficult, but I'm going to have to tell you this. You know for the last seven years you've had meetings in that office? And you know every day you've had a little tray on it which has got glasses and two bottles of Malvern water? Every morning I'd go down the corridor, fill the bottles up from the tap, screw the caps on and put them on the table. I had to tell you before you went.'" 

"Tap water in a Malvern bottle! If the question is 'is saving money and efficiency core to the being of my office?', the answer is 'it starts with the bottled water'." ]

***

In the Commons, Balls is supported by shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, shadow economic secretary Cathy Jamieson, shadow exchequer secretary Shabana Mahmood,  shadow Treasury minister Catherine McKinnell and his PPS Barbara Keely. 

Another key figure is John Wrathmell, a former Treasury civil servant who advises both Balls and Miliband on economic policy. It was he who crunched the new deficit numbers in last year's Autumn Statement (not published until Balls was on his feet) which were passed into the chamber and allowed the shadow chancellor to reveal that borrowing for the next two years had been revised up by £12.5bn and by £219bn across the parliament compared to Osborne's 2010 programme. 

During our conversation, Balls spoke of the importance of supporting and caring about "the personal and career development of the people you’re working with", something that "neither Tony Blair or Gordon Brown were any good at". Several of those shadow ministers who have worked for him have gone on to bigger jobs. Rachel Reeves was promoted to shadow work and pensions secretary after serving as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and Owen Smith was a junior member of his team before becoming shadow Welsh secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496