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(Illustration by Michael Daley)


When Vince Cable was acting leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007 he said of Gordon Brown in an exchange during Prime Minister’s Question Time, “The House has noticed in the last few week’s the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean.”  If the early appearances of Ed Balls on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing are anything to go by the comment might even more appropriately have been made of Brown’s former consigliere

In his time at the heart of Labour politics — from joining Brown’s shadow chancellor team in 1994, through his election to parliament in 2005 and then ministerial career from 2006 to his Labour leadership run after his party’s defeat in 2010 and his own term as shadow chancellor from 2011 to 2015 — Balls has had two malign influences on politics and one achievement for which we should all be thankful.

That achievement was the significant part he played in keeping Britain out of the euro. In 1997 Gordon Brown, by then Chancellor, announced his five economic tests which had to be met before a Labour government would support joining the single currency. Only if the government felt they had been met would a referendum be held and a Yes vote recommended. It is now known that the five tests were dreamt up by Brown and Balls with the specific aim of delaying any decision indefinitely. Balls had never been a supporter of the euro; indeed he had warned of the dangers of the single currency while he was a leader writer at the Financial Times. While others can share some of the credit, Balls is arguably the single most important figure in keeping the UK out. He must take a substantial share of the blame for the economic mess Britain was in by 2010 — but it could have been much worse without him.

But on the debit side, Balls is one of the main culprits in creating a vicious, poisonous atmosphere within the Labour Party and then in British politics more generally since the 1990s. He describes in Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics (Hutchinson, £20), published last month, how during the coalition years he would relish putting Osborne and Cameron off their stride during PMQs: “The microphones pick up only a fraction of what is going on [in the Commons chamber], as do the journalists up in the press gallery. It was perfectly possible, and common, for George Osborne and me to have a whispered chat throughout the PMQs exchanges . . . Of course, Cameron could also hear what I was saying, and would become gradually more and more irate.” Such sledging may be common on the sports field, but is it really appropriate for parliament? It certainly does not seem to be something to boast about in one’s memoirs. Such conduct explains why Balls’s 2015 defeat in his Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood was so warmly greeted by many of his parliamentary colleagues, not all of whom were on the Tory side.

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