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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.