Theresa May's "bold" move on grammar schools already looks like a mistake

My week, from post-politics retirement to David Cameron’s fatal error – and my spray-tan anxiety.

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When I stood on the Leeds Arena stage on General Election night smiling at my victorious opponent, Andrea Jenkyns, the one consolation in my mind was that I would not have to endure another five years of David Cameron’s sneering put-downs from the despatch box.

Who would have thought that just eighteen months later, Cameron would out of his job and joining me in post-politics retirement? I always knew that if the Tories got a majority I would lose, but I never expected it to happen. When you reflect on what came next, there is only one conclusion: neither did David.

In retrospect, he was totally unprepared for the EU referendum campaign. His error was not simply to sign up to a referendum in the last parliament in the confident expectation that after the election – and in a hung parliament – his coalition partners would prevent it going ahead. His disastrous mistake was to commit in the Tory manifesto to controls on European migration that, however desirable (and I believe they are), were never going to be conceded by our European partners on the Cameron referendum timetable.

The result was that David Cameron’s renegotiation failed to deliver anything like the reform he had promised. But rather than admit it was work in progress, he typically told the British people he had “re-set” the relationship and regarded it as a triumph.

The missing vow

Standing at the back of a Ryanair hangar at the start of the campaign, as I chronicle in my book Speaking Out, George Osborne and I agreed that the Yes side had been left defending the status quo at a time when voters were crying out for change and reform.

I left confidently expecting George to deliver a Scottish referendum-style “vow” to achieve further reform in the final weeks of the campaign. But it seems that Cameron dug his heels in. And the rest is history – or at least a defeat which will define David Cameron’s place in history.

Oh, the irony. In retrospect, given the Tory majority and Labour’s chaos, I am reluctantly glad to be out of it. But is David Cameron now happy to have won that majority? I rather doubt it.

Scenting blood

When I was at primary school my ambition was to be a doctor. But then a February sledging accident buried that dream. A small gash on my hand was enough to send me collapsing in a woozy heap.

But I have always been fascinated by the skill and professionalism of medics. And the inspiration for my book was reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, a deeply insightful and moving reflection of the hard reality of his life as a brain surgeon. I decided I would try and write a book about politics which tries to show what being on the inside is really like.

Last week it was brought back to me why my medical career was a non-starter. Leaving the Guardian offices, I was smacked in the head by an automatic glass door. As the blood poured out, we had to dash by car down to the BBC for a lengthy appearance on 5 Live’s Afternoon Edition.

Looking at me on the web cam, the presenters were audibly shocked by my battered appearance. By this time, that familiar woozy feeling was in full flow. I was told afterwards that it was a good interview, but I couldn’t remember anything other than my continual struggle not to pass out live on air. As I left the studio, with the swelling growing, I looked like I’d gone ten rounds with Gennady Golovkin. Appropriately enough my next interview – straight afterwards – was on Hardtalk!

Selection anxiety

There are mistakes you make in politics that you don’t know you’re making at the time. And then there are mistakes when you can feel in your gut that things are not going right, and you’re doing the wrong thing. But for whatever reason, you can’t stop them happening, no matter what the voice in your head is telling you. 

It is still too early to tell, but I have an inkling that our new prime minister may turn out to be prone to the latter kind. Like many other leaders, she is enjoying a honeymoon period. The question is whether decisions heralded in that period as bold turn out to be simply reckless and insensitive.

Theresa May’s “bold” move on grammar schools already looks like one of these mistakes to me. There are good reasons why Margaret Thatcher never foisted more selection on anxious, aspirational parents. I don’t know whether the timing of David Cameron’s departure is related to growing Tory backbench unease on the issue. But to see his former education secretary, Nicky Morgan, bravely criticising the policy at the weekend, does not bode well. This may be a subtly brilliant strategy from our new PM. But I can’t see it.

Even more serious, Theresa May’s European strategy is looking more and more adrift. Some commentators branded it smart of her to put David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox into the top jobs to scrap it out. But the result is a government that looks chaotic, directionless and gaffe-prone on the most vital issue they have to face, even before any serious negotiations begin.  As Theresa May refused to answer question after question on her “direction-free” Andrew Marr interview, I had that familiar queasy feeling in my stomach on her behalf. She needs to grip the Brexit issue fast, and I really wouldn’t leave it to David, Boris and Liam to sort it out.

Glitter balls

When the BBC invited me to do Strictly Come Dancing earlier in the year, it was Yvette’s excitement that persuaded me not to say no immediately. But the decisive moment in persuading me was a phone call with Jeremy Vine, star of Strictly in 2015.

Back at the BBC last week for an interview with Jeremy, we talked about all the usual Strictly themes for men of our age – weight-loss, glitter-aversion, spray-tan anxiety. But afterwards, with the tape off, Jeremy took me to task.

“Are you practicing the Charleston yet?”, he asked. “It’s a killer, you must start now.” And he promptly jumped up in the BBC cafeteria and gave me an accomplished demonstration. I hot-footed it straight back to the dance studio, and was quickly in front of the mirror trying to wiggle like a 1930s flapper for my partner Katya’s approval. Her look in response said it all. Jeremy Vine, I salute you – but what have you done to me!

“Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics” is published this month by Penguin Random House.

Ed Balls was formerly the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood.

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation