Ed Balls was in New York when the speculation about his return to politics began. A Financial Times column on 12 April had suggested that Balls might stand in the forthcoming Wakefield by-election. Sources from Keir Starmer’s team soon told Politico that there was a “real buzz” about Balls becoming a Labour MP again. Balls himself let the rumours run on.
It was an unusual interlude in the life of the New Labour cabinet minister turned TV personality. After losing his seat at the 2015 general election, Balls re-cast himself as a broadcaster. Over the past seven years the former shadow chancellor has become better known for chatting to Delia Smith on the Good Morning Britain sofa or competing in Strictly Come Dancing than he has for Whatsapping Westminster journalists. Indeed, the speculation about his return interrupted the new normal of Ed Balls. On Friday (22 April) Balls appeared on Michael McIntyre’s show The Wheel before travelling to the Cambridge Literary Festival to promote his new book Appetite, which is one part cookbook, two parts memoir. This week he’s returned to the GMB studio as co-host on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Balls was true to form at his event on Friday evening at the Cambridge Union. He looked comfortable walking up to the podium and began by explaining where he got the idea for his book. “When my oldest daughter was 18, we’d said to her: ‘What would you like for your eighteenth birthday and, within reason anything, is OK’,” he recalled. “We couldn’t afford a car and she can’t drive. And she said: ‘What I would like is, I would like a cookbook of all the recipes that dad’s cooked for the family in the last 18 years.’” The audience cooed. Balls wrote out 65 recipes called Dishes for my Daughter and it eventually morphed into Appetite.
A warmth of feeling was palpable in the room, a familiarity people often sense with those they’ve watched on TV for many years. Balls held the audience’s attention and they relished his every word. Stories about his first roast dinner as a three-week-old baby and quips such as “what is a milkshake?!” elicited regular ripples of laughter. He told his anecdotes with the confidence of a performer, not a political candidate. Few politicians nowadays could command such adulation. But, of course, the audience was self-selective: it’s unlikely that many opponents of Balls’s 2008 decision to scrap SATs for 14-year-olds would choose his Cambridge Literary Festival event as the place to express their dissent.
There were some residual signs of the politician. When he spoke he would jab the air with a closed fist capped with his thumb. The move — perhaps intended to replace a more aggressive wag of the finger — was popular with politicians during the Coalition years and is still alive and well with Michael Gove. The similarities stop there though.
All of this raises an interesting question. Is Balls’s popularity dependent on him not being a politician, and so would he cease to be popular if he returned? Most politicians struggle to excite a village fete let alone become figures of national adoration. If he did go back, would his lustre fade away?
In any case, Balls has now dampened the rumours about his return. Perhaps he’s simply happier sat on the GMB sofa, or writing books about food and cavorting with comedians, away from journalists trying to buttonhole him at literary festivals. More likely, he’s conscious of the personal impact of running for office again. Any return to politics for Balls would have serious personal consequences, not least on the shadow home secretary, his wife, Yvette Cooper.
Why, then, did Balls let the speculation run on? Balls says he didn’t immediately rule out returning to politics because he wanted to protect its reputation. For him, dismissing a return outright would reinforce the perception that politics wasn’t an attractive career. He criticised Tony Blair for recently saying he wouldn’t encourage his children to go into politics. (“You can’t say that,” he said during his talk in Cambridge, with a tone of reproach.) He argued that politics shouldn’t be disparaged. That’s a valid concern and Balls recognises the distrust between people and politicians. In his comments he encouraged people to stop seeing politicians as inherently “out of touch” and said that he wanted to break the “us” and “them” narrative.
This is too idealistic to be the decisive reason. When he did eventually close down the rumours, Balls chose his words carefully. He told the audience: “I’ve no intention of being the candidate in Wakefield, and the speculation which happened this week I wasn’t expecting.” Yet “I don’t intend to” is not the same as “I will not”, and “I’ve no intention of being the candidate in Wakefield” is very different to “I have no intention of ever returning to politics”.
When asked whether leaving politics gave him a different perspective, Balls clasped his hands gravely. “I think you definitely get a different perspective,” he said, then paused, weighing his words. “The most important, fulfilling, hardest, challenging, but in the end important things I’ve ever done was in politics and actually when we were in government. So I can look back on those times with a lot of fondness. There’s nothing I’ve done since which was as hard or as fulfilling.”
After the talk, the queue for the book signing stretched through three rooms. People came away gripping their signed copies of Appetite, proudly showing their waiting relatives what Balls had written. It was a sign of the popularity that Balls has built up. If he did give politics another shot, Balls might be able to connect to voters in a way the current shadow cabinet can’t. That would give him influence over the party. Perhaps the question is less about whether Balls would maintain his popularity than whether he can resist the temptation of returning to power. In any case, he’s left the door ajar.