In government, Ed Balls was always one of my least favourite ministers. He was patronising, dictatorial and a little bit shifty.
In Opposition, Ed Balls seems to have found his perfect niche.
That’s the thing about a lot of these Labour figures we’ve known and loved for many years now. A lot of them have known nothing other than government. Until very recently, none of us actually had any idea what the likes of the Milibands and the “Blair’s Babes” generation were going to be like on the other side of the House. Whoever made that transition to the very different skillset of Opposition was always going to be able to get their nose in front…
And, to me, the man who has done that most effectively, and impressed on every opportunity, is Ed Balls.
He is helped too by his sheer opportunism. Such language is invariably pejorative, but in these days of democracy, it is a plus point. Ed Balls has wasted no time in executing an impressive series of u-turns on immigration, on schools and is now also looking very strongly at the idea of a graduate tax instead of up-front tuition fees. I like it. There is no better time than straight after electoral defeat to jettison dodgy policy areas or retune to the opinions of the mass market; the defeat is the perfect cover, and the post-election melee means it’s soon forgotten anyway.
The best aspect of him seems to have been his attitude to the coalition. He is always talking about the “risks” they are taking, and is taking that aspect of his attacks to extreme levels. It is a risky strategy in itself, but it is important to plant the seed of doubt in people’s minds. If the cuts do falter, Balls will reap the harvest.
Like it or not, he is also the one succeeding most in making himself seem the most “normal”. He has shed his wonkery of years past, and always looks suitably embarrassed whenever one of those nasty journos try to blame him for “Neo Endogenous Growth Theory”. He has a neutral accent without too many silly quirks or weird pronunciations (see Gordon Brown). He doesn’t have that “other wordly” look and sound of the Milibands, and his delivery and diction put him streets ahead of Andy Burnham.
Better still, he seems to be developing a good sense of humour. It doesn’t win you elections, as William Hague proved, but it’s important not to take yourself too seriously in the job of Leader of the Opposition. Witty barbs at PMQs keep the troops fired up, as does being able to think up smooth retorts in the heat of a debate. And, yes, it does make you appear normal.
Labour don’t really have a very good choice ahead of them. But they could do a lot worse than Ed Balls.