During his premiership, David Cameron conceived an especial dislike for the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Over the five years in which the two of them were in the House of Commons on opposite sides, Cameron called Balls, at various points, “a turkey” and “the most annoying man in politics”. Once, during Prime Minister’s Questions, he halted proceedings to say: “I’m surprised the shadow chancellor is shouting again, because we learned last week, like bullies all over the world, he can dish it out, but he can’t take it. He never learns.”
The transformation of Ed Balls in public life is a remarkable one
Cameron’s ire was largely provoked by a single gesture that Balls displayed during PMQs, and on other set-piece occasions; a hand, palm-down, moved from side to side, indicating the flatlining economy. Yet for all the “Flashman” jibes levelled at Cameron for his own supposedly aggressive tactics, the image of Balls as a bullying Brownite enforcer, a hectoring and shouting presence, became the dominant one. When he lost his seat of Morley and Outwood at the 2015 General Election to Andrea Jenkyns, his defeat symbolised the fall of Labour’s ambitions. Little wonder that the hashtag #BallsOut trended on Twitter all night.
I was struck at the time by a remark that the journalist Isabel Hardman made upon Balls’s castration. Hardman, a careful and diligent commentator who seldom lapses into hyperbole, wrote that he would be much missed, because he was a marvellous raconteur in private. Most of us who follow politics with any degree of interest were fed up with hearing servile journalists fawn about Gordon Brown’s equally legendary wit and charm behind closed doors, and wondered why he seemed so incapable of demonstrating it in public. So it seemed with his protégé. One would not have bet on Balls becoming a much-loved national figure; Cameron, on the other hand, is regarded as a money-grabbing pariah.
But this is exactly what has transpired. While the former PM languishes miserably in the slipstream of the Greensill scandal, it was recently announced that his former nemesis is going to publish his second volume of autobiography, Appetite, which is designed to be “a memoir in recipes”. His publisher has described it as “a celebration of love, family and good food”, and it has been cannily timed to come on the heels of his victory in the BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook in February. Given that his first memoir, Speaking Out, was a critically acclaimed bestseller, one would be a fool to bet against this one enjoying similar success.
The transformation of Ed Balls in public life is a remarkable one. While there are many former politicians who have reinvented themselves as writers and television personalities, some with enormous success (Alan Johnnson, Michael Portillo) and some less happily (Ann Widdecombe, Lembit Opik), there is perhaps no man who has gone, over a relatively short space of time, from a figure whose political demise was celebrated by those across the political spectrum to someone who is considered the exemplar of what a former MP should be. His Twitter biography gives some hint as to the breadth of his current interests and experience: “Dad, cook, pianist, economist, King’s Professor, Harvard Fellow, Holocaust Fdn co-Chair, #NCFC, retired dancer, former Cabinet minister, sometimes on TV & Radio”.
His warmth, wit and charm were always there during his time in politics, but sometimes they hid in plain sight
The wry words “retired dancer” give an excellent indication as to why Balls enjoys the popular affection that he currently basks in. Although his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, in which he achieved justifiable excitement for his iconic performance to the song “Gangam Style”, may well be the high water mark of his successful battle to win hearts and minds — although he came sixth, he was by far the most remarked-upon participant — it did not seem particularly strange to many that, in 2018 at the Queen’s 92nd Birthday Concert, he should take his place alongside the comedians Frank Skinner and Harry Hill and the George Formby Society, vigorously performing Formby’s inimitable “When I’m Cleaning Windows”.
It remains the greatest, funniest, most incongruous thing that I have ever seen in a Royal Variety show. Occasionally, I wonder if I dreamt it. But it demonstrated, as if it needed to, that Balls was that much-beloved thing: a good sport. He might have been Chancellor, possibly even Prime Minister, in another world, but that would not have allowed him to perform a classic comic song, backed by dozens of musicians, in front of the Queen and Prince William. On balance, he probably did better this way round.
The fact that Balls is now regarded as a celebrity rather than a former politician has placed him in a rare situation. He has generally refrained from comment on contemporary politics, although he described Jeremy Corbyn as “a tragedy and a disaster” for the Labour party, and caustically said of him that, “He undoubtedly not only stood with antisemitic people, but said things which were antisemitic.” And behind the scenes, his work with the Holocaust Foundation and at Harvard and King’s is clearly of the utmost importance to a man whose undoubted intelligence and energy have been of use to any organisation that he has been part of. Including, of course, his beloved Norwich Football Club.
His qualities of warmth, wit and charm were always there during his time in politics, but sometimes they hid in plain sight. It seemed incongruous that he made jokes, as in a 2011 Independent interview in which, asked what he was known as when he was younger, he replied, “Unsurprisingly I never really needed a nickname at school. Although it was bad for me it was much worse for my sister, Ophelia.” Yet now, he has shown himself to be someone whose appetite — if you will — for exposure and publicity are matched by a steeliness and integrity that have elevated him to his current place in the national pantheon.
Including, of course, Ed Balls Day. Once, this occasion — sparked by his accidentally tweeting his name as he attempted to look himself up on Twitter — was a cause of mockery and ridicule, done in the patented post-modern fashion that social media specialises in. Now, 28 April each year is a time for affection and for memes of Balls resplendent in his Gangam Style finery.
His presence in public life is a welcome reminder, for all our justified cynicism about those who we elect to office, that sometimes there can be a second act for former politicians. One imagines that David Cameron will look at his one-time nemesis, and hope that the same treatment, one day, will await him. Perhaps he should dust off his dancing shoes and ukulele, just in case.
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