Date with destiny
Ed Balls is in his Commons office talking about two of his specialist subjects: David Cameron and hand gestures.
The man dubbed by the Prime Minister as ‘the most annoying person in modern politics’ nonchalantly explains that his famous ‘flatlining’ heckle was literally a helping hand, a reality check on what he calls Cameron’s ‘delusion’ about the economy.
And Balls insists that when he first started using the gesture in PMQs, it was not a premeditated stunt. “Things are more spontaneous than that,” he says. “I see my job, sitting next to Ed, other than supporting Ed, is just to… to hold a mirror up to David Cameron, in order that he sees the reality. He says the economy's strong, and I'd go ‘it's not though’. The reason why it gets noticed is because David Cameron, at these particular moments, realises that the truth may not be what's in his head at that moment.”
Located just along from Ed Miliband's suite, the Shadow Chancellor's office combines the personal and the political, the walls covered with photos of his children, as well as election posters including a prized copy of the Tories’ Demon Eyes advert from 1997.
With the Autumn Statement due next month, Balls knows that the political and economic stakes are high. He will formally respond to George Osborne for the set-piece occasion, yet time and again it is the First Lord of the Treasury who is firmly in his sights.
Balls was most struck by David Cameron’s reaction to the Q3 2012 GDP figures showing the country was out of recession. “I think that moment when the Prime Minister said ‘the good news will just keep coming’ was as ill-judged as his statement in October 2010 ‘we are out of the danger zone’.
“When you actually look at what’s happened in our economy after the Olympics, when you look at what are the challenges we face next year, the idea that you can just sort of say ‘at last the recovery is secured’ or ‘we’ve done the difficult bit on growth’ is very complacent,” he says.
“The conclusion I’ve really drawn about David Cameron is that his time perspective probably finishes four weeks ahead. He’s one of the most short term policy makers that I’ve seen. You can’t run the economy that way. You’ve actually got to be looking a year, two years, five years, 10 years.
“The prospects for the next 12-24 months are really tough. Even the optimists have pessimistic growth forecasts. I don’t think that crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is at all wise.”
Yet even though some analysts warn growth could slip back in the next quarter. Balls is careful not to fall into the trap of predicting a ‘triple-dip’ recession.
“When I first became Shadow Chancellor I was probably the person being most pessimistic and concerned at the state of the British economy at the end of 2010. I said I didn’t think a double dip recession was the most likely outcome and that turned out to be more optimistic than the reality.
“I don’t think a triple-dip recession is the most likely outcome. I think the most likely outcome is a recovery which is not as strong as it should be, where living standards are still very much under pressure and where you are still lacking confidence in the business and consumer sector and the danger is you pay a long-term price not just in terms of higher long term unemployment and investment decisions not being made, but other countries moving ahead when we are not. That’s my worry going into next year.”
It’s not just Mr Cameron’s approach to the economy that is a target for Balls’ attacks. He says he was ‘shocked’ by the PM’s speech to the CBI this week, particularly his complaints that Whitehall was proving an obstacle to growth.
“I don’t remember a Prime Minister ever deciding in such a blatant way to blame the failure of delivery of his own Government in terms of outcomes and policy of change on the civil servants in the way that David Cameron did yesterday and his ministers have done in the last two years. I find it quite shocking.
“You’ve had Justine Greening: ‘It’s the civil servants in transport’; Michael Gove: ‘It’s the civil servants in Education’; Theresa May: ‘the immigration crisis, Brodie Clark and the civil servants in the Border Agency’; David Cameron – ‘too much consultation’.
“Dumping on the civil service as an excuse for your failure of leadership and to make decisions and to follow through I think is cheap and is desperate and is weak. What I thought yesterday was the CBI, these are the ultimate guys who can recognise a cheap suit when they see one. And I thought the Prime Minister walking in yesterday and blaming the civil service was cheap-suit politics.
But didn’t Tony Blair too complain about the ‘scars on my back’ in his own battles to get policy delivery?
“I think Tony Blair, in the conversations I’ve had, always regretted that speech because he always knew to the extent there were challenges which the Labour Government faced. Of course you’ve got to make sure the machine delivers but fundamentally when you get things wrong it’s almost always a lack of clarity of policy or follow-through from ministers, rather than the civil servants. The civil servants I’ve worked with, Nick Macpherson, Jon Cunliffe, Tom Scholar, Mike Ellam in the Treasury were totally first class. And when we got things wrong it wasn’t the civil service’s fault.”
Warming to his theme, Balls embarks on an extended riff about ministerial rather than civil service errors on the NHS reforms, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, Abu Hamza and even aviation policy.
“Civil servants deliver and ministers have to decide. David Cameron seems to be kind of Prime Minister who thinks if he says something it comes true or that if he says something it must be true. He’s utterly deluded.
One reason for the ‘delusion’, Balls says, is that the PM and the Chancellor are, in the Labour lexicon, ‘out of touch’ with ordinary voters. But why should Balls be more ‘in touch’ than his opponents?
“It’s much more to do with who you talk to, how you spend your time, the kind of constituency you have,” he says. He also has an answer that may surprise his critics: he’s in touch because he represents Middle England.
His constituency of Morley and Outwood is “the crossroads of the M1 and the M62, it’s a Middle England seat in that sense”, he points out. And it’s not just a geographical point he’s making. This is what you might call ‘Squeezed Middle England’. “People want to know that childcare is going to be affordable, that their kids are going to be able to afford a house, they want decent schools and they are worried about petrol taxes going up. And they need to know that the Government or we as national politicians understand what their lives are like. I think the thing about David Cameron and George Osborne is they don’t talk enough to people like that.”
After the recent strong showing for UKIP in the PCC elections and in Corby, Balls knows that it’s not just Labour that is attracting votes from those disillusioned by the Coalition.
“My reading of this at the moment is that the UKIP vote is a vote that is only partly about Europe. And it’s actually at least as much a worry about whose side the Government is on, who David Cameron and George Osborne are really for. There are lots of people who voted Conservative in 2010 who look at what’s happened subsequently on jobs, on the top rate of tax, on tax credits and living standards and think ‘I didn’t vote for this’. I actually think that if we want to persuade UKIP voters to vote Labour for change that is at least as much about bank reform, or energy policy or a jobs plan, those kinds of things.
“I think a Labour strategy of ‘let me swing the UKIP vote by posing as Eurosceptics’ would not only be dishonest but I actually don’t think that understands properly what that UKIP vote is about.”
Having pushed hard for a Brussels spending freeze, the Shadow Chancellor is clearly aware that being ‘hard-headed’ on Europe plays well with key voters. But he insists the issue is bigger than that.
“It goes to a wider strategic point which is that Labour as a pro-European party cannot be for the status quo - the status quo is not good enough. Therefore we have to be the people on the budget, on agriculture and on structural funds and on the economy more generally, who are the agitators for change and reform.
“Given the state of public opinion and the state of Europe at the moment, Labour at the moment as the party of the status quo in Europe? That doesn’t tick my box.
“I’ve always made the case for a hard-headed pro-Europeanism. Hard-headed means you argue for your national interest. What you don’t do is wring your hands and say ‘we think this is the right position but if we put that argument we might upset a few people who might say ‘Oh my gosh, Roy Jenkins would turn in his grave’. But I’m afraid we are slightly beyond that in terms of the British position in Europe. And Ed and I are 100% on that.”
Labour MPs successfully ambushed the Government over the EU budget vote by siding with Tory Eurosceptics. Balls denies reports that he had personal talks with Douglas Carswell to plot tactics. “I can say to you categorically I didn’t have a single conversations in the week before that vote with any of the Conservative MPs,” he says. However, he adds: “I’m not going to say to you that no whip walked past any Conservative and said ‘I see your motion is using our words..’ because I obviously can’t be privy to every conversation that happens in the House of Commons.”
Banging the table in Brussels now and again is something that Gordon Brown used to love to do when Tony Blair was PM. When asked when he last spoke to his former boss, Balls says “I’ve not spoken for Gordon for some months.”
Some Labour argue that if Balls had remained as Brown's adviser after 2005 then the Prime Minister’s tenure would have matched his success as a Chancellor.
Balls resists the flattery. "The question is, you know, what contribution can you make?" he argues, pointing to the graduations of the Miliband brothers and Douglas Alexander from adviser to MPs. “At a certain point, your time as an adviser runs out. You can't do it forever. I think you can point to lots of other people whose time as an adviser sort of ran out, and sometimes it ran out in quite a difficult way. Each of us, for different reasons, saw that the people that were really responsible and really accountable, and had to make the most difficult decisions... were, in the end, the people that were elected."
That meant severing close ties with his old boss. "The perception of me the Tories will always want to peddle, is that I was the person to whisper in Gordon Brown's ear on the economy, after he became Prime Minister. The reality was that that was never true. And it was never true because it couldn't be done - partly because I was Secretary of State for a big department, and partly because… the Chancellor was Alastair Darling, and the Prime Minister was Gordon Brown, that had to be the key relationship. And it was impossible for me as a politician, as a Secretary of State, to mediate in the middle of that.”
“And, therefore, much to his great frustration, and, actually, in some ways quite a big frustration in the end, I refused to have a different view, other than the small number of times where we all sat in a room together - Gordon, Alistair, myself, Peter Mandelson - those points of view, times when we were there, open, I would say 'well this is my view'. But what I wasn't going to do was be a separate source of advice to Gordon Brown about the economy. It would've been totally impossible.”
One area where Balls is unafraid to give advice is on the X-Factor. His Twitterfeed burst onto primetime TV last week when he expressed his unhappiness at contestant Ella being voted off the show. X-Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger told the audience to "VOTE FOR BALLS!”. He was “somewhat taken back” at the celebrity endorsement. "It certainly enlivened our sitting room", he jokes, though his children weren't impressed. In fact, "they were appalled."
But he doesn’t regret the tweet. "I think probably if we had a had a conference call to decide whether I should adopt the chorus of Call Me Maybe as a reply I think we may have concluded I shouldn’t, but this is one of those moments where not having the conference call was probably ok."
Another Balls television favourite is the US series Modern Family. He's a big fan, believing that "the reason why the programme is so brilliant is there's a little bit of [lead character] Phil Dunphy in all of us."
Balls describes an episode he has seen more than once, in which an awkward Dunphy embarrasses his daughter when dropping her off at university for the first time
“I cry every time I see that. Every time," he admits. "It is all about the vulnerability of the daughter…and it captures the sort of dilemmas of parenting in a teenager.
“Dads are supposed to be a bit embarrassing, but of course you always think to yourself at key moments, ‘was that a bit embarrassing?’ But actually it’s sort of what you’re supposed to do and it’s always really important to remember that you're appreciated for being a bit embarrassing, even if it may not feel like it at the time.”
It's clear that Balls enjoys his television. But what about venturing out of the house? In a recent interview he confessed that he and his wife Yvette Cooper hadn’t been on a date night in a decade.
"It caused a real bust up in our relationship" he deadpans. "Yvette said 'My God, I've suddenly realised there's not been a date night for ten years. What have you been up to?'.”
In what might seen as a dig against David Cameron, who boasts of one date night a week with his wife Sam, Balls then adds:
“The world divides into those people that think you should get a babysitter to go round in order to go on a ‘date night’ and those people that don’t. I’m not sure which way the world splits, but amongst working parents it may split my way. Of course Yvette and I have been out to dinner. Of course we've been to the cinema. It’s the idea of a ‘date night’, as far as I'm concerned.”
The very concept triggers a full on confession: Ed Balls found it "bloody stressful" when he was on the dating circuit.
"Dating is what you do when you are single and seeing whether or not you are going to get on with somebody. I don’t look back on dating. I think: thank God, Yvette and I have been together since 1994, have managed since 1994 to get beyond dating."
That said, he watches the dating game with morbid interest.
"Is it the Observer Magazine where they have that blind date and they both write about it? I love reading it. It's absolutely fascinating, and every time I read it I think thank God I've not got to do that anymore. So the idea that me and Yvette would set up a thing called date night where we would deliberately re-live…What I'd be more likely to say is ‘I refuse to go on a date night, but shall we get a Chinese?’ I think that’s more of my world."
Despite the guilty admission of a fondness for a takeaway, Balls is famous for his love of cooking – and this Christmas he reveals that the family is “at a new frontier’ in the kitchen.
Balls is taking on chef duties at the in-laws on Christmas Day, an experiment which began last year when “every time I spilled a little pool of water on the top they wiped it… I’m joking.” So what was on the menu? “I did a turkey, chicken and cranberry terrine. Chestnut risotto. You see the Christmas theme. And then an Italian roast pork and bit of roast beef. With proper gravy.”
The pudding came from Marks and Spencers, not that Balls is embarrassed.
“It’s important in cooking to understand there’s certain things which it’s impossible for a home cook to do as well as commercial. Really hard to do puff pastry – get off. Brandy snaps. And Christmas pudding. Three things where the home chef can never attempt to rival the expert.”
After the meal, will Balls – practising for his grade two piano exams – lead the family in a round of carols? No, he says, Yvette takes charge there, though their children are increasingly “fabulous” at playing – credit for which, says Balls, should go to their father.
“My main impetus for learning to play the piano other than enjoying doing it is they know I am coming up behind them and therefore they have to keep practising, keep improving to get ahead.”
Balls then reveals a surprising inspiration for his blossoming musical talent: West End musicals. Having grown up on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and Joseph, he confesses: “The slightly embarrassing thing… is I’m a bit low brow when it comes to theatre”. “The last year-and-a-half I’ve been to Matilda, Shrek, Billy Elliot, Mamma Mia, Les Miserables and Wicked… in the last year and a half I’ve been four times. The thing about Wicked is every time it’s better. Wicked is absolutely brilliant.”
So, he loves popular musicals, watches SkyOne, is ‘hard-headed’ on Europe and gets his Xmas pud from M&S. Maybe Ed Balls really is more Middle England than everybody thought after all. But he still won’t be having a ‘date night’ with David Cameron sometime soon.
BALLS on… playing the piano
“It’s unlike driving or watching TV or cooking, because it’s two hands and the music - it is really impossible to think about anything else. The relaxation comes from the utter dedication you have to have to the moment.
BALLS on… his favourite composers
“If you said to me Bartok or Bruch I’d take Bruch. And if you said to me Ravel or Shostakovich I’d take Ravel. My favourite composer in the world would be Herbert Howells, and his best work was done in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Twentieth century choral music is fabulous.
BALLS on…the last novel he read
“Siri Hustvedt’s ‘What I loved’.
Balls on… Damian McBride’s blog
“Damian made a big mistake which he knew at the time and has a many times. But he’s also hugely thoughtful and talented and wise. The blog about the budget process – I read it.”
Balls on…child benefit changes due on January 1:
“I don’t know how they are going to make this work. I think this may make even the Police and Crime Commissioner elections look competent. I think it will be a shambles.”