To spend the day with Ed Balls is exhausting. On a recent visit to the West Midlands, the Schools Secretary, who many believe would like to lead the party one day, was characteristically hyperactive: at one point he even opened the car door before the vehicle had stopped. He ate lunch, a bowl of shepherd’s pie, standing up as he chatted to Sir Alan Sugar about the government’s apprenticeship scheme, which is fronted by the bearded, Labour-supporting tycoon.
The West Midlands is a key battleground Labour must hold if it is to win the next general election. The trip was a whirl of frenzied activity and campaigning, taking in a children’s centre for under-fours in a deprived area of Coventry and an apprenticeship scheme for school-leavers in nearby Birmingham. Somewhere on the M6, Balls instructed his staff to go on the attack after the Tories announced that, if elected, they would reduce public spending to tackle government debt. He never ceased.
Balls believes that the election is “entirely winnable” for Labour. The image he wants to convey is that of a committed Gordon Brown loyalist whose own ambition would never take precedence over the interests of the party. But many in Westminster believe he is already positioning himself for the leadership once Brown, his political mentor, departs the stage. So, what about the big job? I ask him on the train back to London. Everyone thinks you have a plan to be leader of the Labour Party?
“I know. But I’m afraid it’s not true. The fact is, I haven’t got a plan and you know, many of the things which are sort of written, which supposedly know what’s going on, are not true. But you know, politics is politics.”
I observe that journalists and MPs claim it is “screamingly obvious” that he wants to be leader. “The thing is,” he says, “if you are ambitious for your party and you . . . work hard, raise funds and campaign and visit marginal seats, then I think you’re doing the right thing and it’s no different to what Harriet [Harman], Ed Miliband, David Miliband, James Purnell, Tony McNulty, Rosie Winterton and John Healey are all doing every day.”
Yes, but the cabinet figures you mention are also said to want to lead their party. “I want to win the election,” Balls insists. “I think it’s the most important election in my time in politics – as important, in some ways more important than 1997. I’m not going to say that I don’t want to be leader of the Labour Party, that would be a silly thing to say. But if I ended my political career not being [leader], would that be a failure? Absolutely not. And will I always back the leader of the Labour Party? One hundred per cent.”
Ed Balls, who was born in Norwich in 1967, became a Labour Party member at 16. “Dad was chair of the local branch. I think he may have needed my vote.” He joined all three political societies at Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Keble. But there was never any doubt where his allegiances lay and contemporaries remember him as being firmly on the left. Another student now describes “Eddie” Balls as “very energetic and dynamic, but he certainly wasn’t a humble person”. He led a conventional student lifestyle, according to his Oxford acquaintance: “He’d drink a bit but he wouldn’t do anything illegal.”
He was elected JCR president, prompting some ideological opponents to shave off one of his eyebrows shortly afterwards, as a prank. (Balls drew it back on with a brown eyeliner.) The confident young Balls irritated some of his fellow students, even though it was widely recognised that he was destined to succeed in politics. “I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company but I’m not unhappy that he is in a ministerial post,” says his old contemporary.
He seems a little hurt when I tell him what this person said, as well as that some of his fellow students did not much care for him, and yet he relishes the antipathy the Conservatives feel towards him today. “I feel honoured that the Tories don’t like me. There’s nothing that buoys me up more than a [scathing] Quentin Letts sketch [in the Daily Mail].”
But, perhaps predictably, many Blairites dislike him, too. One former Blair aide used a four-letter word to describe him. Another said: “He’s quite a nice bloke. But he would be a disaster as Labour leader.” One Labour MP says he is worried about Balls’s school-reform agenda, which includes more freedoms for the best schools: “I don’t see any real hunger or reforming zeal to push up school standards.”
Some Blairites told me that because of Balls’s determination to court the party grass roots, the views of teaching unions and local education authorities, which are generally sceptical about reform, now have too much influence. Balls rejects this. “I spent an hour and a half at a head teachers’ conference last week where they were telling me I was being too tough,” he says.
The easiest way to win popularity in the party is to condemn private education, but Balls, himself a former private school boy (he attended Nottingham High School), says he respects his parents’ right to choose. He adds: “I admire the sacrifices that some parents make because of their aspiration. I do have a degree of regret that some don’t feel state schools are good enough. I would never say my parents were wrong to send me to a private school. Today, they’d make a different choice, though.”
Balls is obviously as comfortable talking about the economy as he is about his own brief, displaying a willingness to wander off-piste that many cabinet colleagues do not share. Asked about the furious public response to the former RBS chief executive Fred Goodwin’s pension deal, he says: “The question in hand that weekend [when RBS was bailed out by the government in October] was this: was the Royal Bank of Scotland going to survive the weekend? Back then I don’t think that people were looking at the detail of pension schemes. I don’t think they thought for a moment that . . . senior bankers would be trying to make last-minute decisions to line their own pockets. So that came as a huge surprise and there was huge anger.”
On the issue of the wider economy, he echoes the Prime Minister, repeating the Brown mantra that the banking crisis started in America and that we are grappling with a global problem. I ask him how significant the G20 summit is likely to be. “It’s important. It’s no more important than that. It’s important it shows a commitment to international leadership, that it [demonstrates] the standing Gordon Brown has around the world. Are they, in one weekend, going to solve the problems of the world? Of course not. But it will be a decisive step forward.”
As we make the journey to the Hillfields Children’s Centre in Coventry, Balls returns to his central message, insisting that Labour can win the next election. The Conservatives, he says, are “worried”. “They know at this stage of the parliament they should be further ahead [in the polls] . . . We get the same polling as they get. The reporting back from our marginal seats is that the Labour vote is holding up and actually the mood on the doorstep is much stronger than it was a year ago.”
As we sit in the back of a silver people-carrier, there is no small talk between his aides, who await the next volley of questions from their boss in silence. He orders staff to discover what David Cameron’s speech on public spending may mean for the schools budget, sensing an opportunity to embarrass his political opponents, and the subject switches away from politics only once during the half-hour journey, when Coventry City’s stadium comes into view and Balls stretches to catch a glimpse. “It used to be a gasworks,” he says to no one in particular.
At Hillfields, the woman who runs the centre tells Balls that dealing with the 47 languages spoken by the 100 or so children who pass through its doors each day makes communication difficult, and there is, as a consequence, an emphasis on drawing, painting and clay modelling. Balls says pupils at the Hackney school his children attend speak 53 different languages, then he offers a high-five to one of the confused-looking children. The children have no idea who he is, of course, and outside Westminster he is not a recognisable figure. Some other cabinet colleagues are better known, because they have held important jobs for a decade or more.
At a meeting at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham to promote the government’s apprenticeship campaign, Balls, with the Skills Secretary, John Denham, and Sir Alan Sugar, urges 600 regional employers to sign up. The Schools Secretary sits down with a group of 11 apprentices, who talk animatedly about their jobs in social care, the police, engineering and education. Unlike some politicians, Balls seems genuinely interested, slipping into the role of careers officer easily enough, even though he is already formulating his second questions before his interlocutors have answered the first. When he leaves, the apprentices concede they had no idea who Balls was (only two of the 11 had even heard of him), but they are pleasantly surprised by their first encounter with a politician, describing him as “quite down to earth” and “a nice bloke” who has “got charisma”. “He seemed interested in what I was saying, not looking around to see if there was someone more interesting.”
Is there a different side to Balls? Does he ever switch off from the churn of politics? When was the last time you were drunk? I ask. “Falling-over drunk? Not for a very long time.” He also says that with a combination of alcohol and tiredness, he seldom reaches the end of a DVD on Saturday nights. Asked about his favourite TV shows, he reels off a long list. He prefers Strictly Come Dancing to The X Factor, watched the entire Gavin and Stacey box set in one sitting at Christmas, and enjoys old episodes of Sex and the City and ER. He reads and is at present enjoying David Peace’s novel about Brian Clough, The Damned United. He claims to do “pretty much all” the cooking at the north London home he shares with his wife, Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He recently cooked a Spanish meal for 45 of her friends to celebrate her birthday and he bought her a “pendant thing” as a present. He tells Yvette he loves her “more than once a day” and, asked how he feels when his wife is touted as a future leader, he says: “It’s great for Yvette. She’s been touted as a potential leader on and off for ten or 11 years and it’s great.” He expects to see a woman lead the Labour Party before too long. “I think it would be brilliant and I expect it will happen in my lifetime. I hope so.”
Would he like to be chancellor? There follows a lengthy pause. “There was lots of speculation about this before the [Blair/Brown] transition,” he says eventually. “I said at the time I’d never been in the cabinet, that I didn’t think it was right for me to be chancellor. That I wanted to go off and do a cabinet role of my own. And actually it was very good for me to have a policy area that wasn’t about the Treasury, and so doing Children, Schools and Families was the best thing that could have happened to me. There are lots of important things that we’ve got going . . . and from my point of view that’s a job half done, so I don’t want to change job. I’d rather carry on doing the job I’m doing. I have worked with Alistair Darling since 1993 and I think history will judge him to be a very far-sighted and brave chancellor. He and Gordon have been a great team on the economy, along with Peter [Mandelson], and I think again that this job is half done, so I think we’re rightly both getting on with the jobs we’ve got.”
Reminded that he has the expertise and experience for the job, he accepts the premise. “I’m pleased that from time to time in the last couple of years I’ve had the chance to talk to Alistair and the Prime Minister when they’ve been making difficult decisions . . . Alistair and I go back a long way and I would never [sic] – I only have respect and one hundred per cent support for him.”
Finally, as the train speeds back to London, he succumbs to a moment of candour. “Would I like to be chancellor at some point in the future? Of course I would. I’d love it.” l
Gloria De Piero is political editor of GMTV