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16 July 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:17am

Exclusive: Ed Balls makes his peace with Peter Mandelson

Leadership contender says he “wishes” former business secretary hadn’t written book, but finds commo

By James Macintyre

In the course of an interview with Ed Balls for next week’s magazine, the subject of Peter Mandelson came up. Because the furore surrounding Mandelson’s book — The Third Man, launched on the South Bank last night — may well be simmering down, I thought I’d share Balls’s comments on the blog instead.

Balls did initially say with a sigh that “I wish Peter hadn’t done it”, while adding that “I [have] spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about now and the future, and I haven’t read anything so far which surprised me or changed my view about very much”.

But — more intriguingly — Balls seemed to make his peace with his one-time bitter enemy. I reminded Balls that he said it was a “risk” when Gordon Brown surprisingly brought Mandelson back into government in 2008. Balls hit back, claiming he said it was “a risk worth taking”. (In fact, he did say “risk”, but he balanced it by saying the move was “a great opportunity for our country and our government“.) So, was it a risk worth taking? “Oh completely, definitely.”

Asked about how Balls and Mandelson — seen crudely as arch-Brownite and arch-Blairite, respectively — came to work closely together in the final two years of New Labour in office, Balls says: “The thing is, people sometimes misunderstand me and how I was involved, my relationship with people.

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“The framework was quite personal issues around egos and who should be leader, which all dated back to a period well before I came into Labour politics [Balls is referring to the build-up to the succession to John Smith in 1994], that went all the way through. But my job was to get things done, and the reason why I had sometimes — the good relationships I had were with people who were also doers.

“So I always got on very well with Alastair Campbell and [the No 10 permanent secretary] Jeremy Heywood, because, even with tensions, we needed to get things done; we needed to get budgets done, and the minimum wage. And the times I had difficulties were the times when there were differences about what to do, as opposed to, you know, credit [for achievements].”

Balls went on to claim that any “difficulty” with Mandelson was merely down to a specific, if important, policy difference.

“The reason I had difficulty with Peter is that he thought we should join the European single currency and I didn’t, and that was a big deal. That was a decision which was alive in ’96 and ’97, alive in 2002 and 2003. But by the time we got to 2007 it was sort of gone.”

Yet, more fundamentally, Balls acknowledged that both men, in their different ways, are in fact tribal Labour and he powerfully described a “commonality” between the two.

“Putting that big issue aside, Peter was Labour and I was Labour. We wanted the government to succeed, we wanted to win the election. Peter and I were always the people who, at key moments, were willing to go out and defend the government.

“I was never part of any plotting and I don’t think anyone suggests Peter particularly was. We were both, as we saw it, trying to do the right thing, and doing the right thing meant coming together. We were more effective than we would have been opposing each other — just not effective enough, sadly.

“Therefore, when Peter looks back with regret that he didn’t turn it around, and I look back and regret that I didn’t turn it around, both will look back and regret that we didn’t turn it around together, and there’s a sort of commonality in that. But I have no anger or bitterness towards Peter at all. In fact, the opposite.”

For the full interview with Ed Balls, see next week’s magazine.

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