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11 March 2015

Who’s who on Team Balls

The men and women behind the shadow chancellor. 

By George Eaton

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

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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.