Ed Balls: Down, boy!

The Shadow Chancellor on why 'One Man and His Dog' is so close to his heart – and the crossbench Westminster bromance that dare not speak its name. Jane Merrick meets Ed Balls

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The Independent Online

All last week we heard about how Ed Balls cries at Antiques Roadshow. But the TV programme that really moves the Shadow Chancellor is One Man and His Dog.

We have been talking for nearly an hour about George Osborne's Autumn Statement, strikes, the eurozone and youth unemployment. But, as we sit in his constituency office in Morley, West Yorkshire, I get a 10-minute exposition on his favourite TV programmes. Chief among them is One Man and His Dog. Is he serious?

"The relationship between the farmer and his dog, the skill, the countryside, the music – it's a fabulous programme," he says, deadpan. "The world divides into those people who like watching One Man and His Dog and those who don't. And I've always liked One Man and His Dog."

Balls says it is unlikely that, when he was growing up, he cried watching farmers guide their hounds through sheepdog trials. But he says: "You see the guy, he's trained his dog, and he's so proud of the dog, and you can just see that relationship. It's about a celebration of relationships; it's a big deal."

Perhaps this aspect resonates with the man whose political mentor, Gordon Brown, valued loyalty within his circle higher than anything else. But what is Balls up to? The football-loving, laddish Brownite labelled a bully by some Labour MPs is suddenly a rounded, emotionally intelligent human who wells up at the command of "Come by"?

Is it preparation for another shot at the leadership? Or perhaps about Yvette Cooper, his wife, being lined up should Ed Miliband fail as Labour leader? Or is it a psychological game to wrong-foot Osborne, who this Tuesday Balls will face for the first time in a Budget-related encounter at the Dispatch Box when the Chancellor delivers his Autumn Statement to the Commons?

Balls's relationship with Osborne is intriguing. I had presumed a mutual loathing existed, just as there was between Brown and Osborne as Chancellor and shadow.

Last week, as most weeks, Balls and Osborne were goading each other, off mic, as, next to them, David Cameron sparred with Ed Miliband at PMQs. Balls taunted Osborne about having a trust fund; the Chancellor snapped back something equally personal.

Yet, it seems, Westminster has a new "bromance": their PMQs shouting matches are more like a married couple who enjoy daily bickering, something that keeps their relationship on its toes. Their taunts are often punctuated with smiles.

Balls insists, unconvincingly, it is not a bromance, but he says Osborne is "the best politician in the Conservative Party at the moment". "I've always got on him with well. We don't agree but I think I would say from my side [there is] a respect for him. George Osborne has an intellectual and political self-confidence which means he can get on with people who are Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, and I would like to think I am the same."

Whenever Balls and Osborne see each other at parties, they have a "nice conversation". But it's more than that: recently, Balls said he wanted to cook a "14-hour pulled pork South Carolina barbecue" for the Chancellor. Balls tells me: "If he thought it was good, then that would be something I would like. So I thought to myself... given he's a bit of an Americanophile, what is the most American thing I could cook him?" This is a rather tender moment. I wonder what Osborne would think.

Osborne is "definitely" going to get a Christmas card. In fact, Balls will act as Father Christmas at the House of Commons children's Christmas party next month, which Osborne's wife, Frances, will co-host. "So it's all in the family," Balls says, eyes twinkling. It makes Tuesday's clash all the more fascinating.

There is no such love for David Cameron, however. Balls accuses the PM of lacking both the "political strength" and the "intellectual curiosity" to ask his Chancellor why their deficit reduction plan isn't working.

But the Shadow Chancellor is clear where he thinks Osborne is wrong: his entire economic Plan A of austerity measures. Balls is expecting a series of "excuses" on why the economy isn't growing, why borrowing is higher. He is also encouraged by the Tory MP David Ruffley's call last week for a VAT cut – something Labour has called for. "George Osborne's career is in tatters if he admits he got this wrong."

Balls says the Youth Contract announced by Nick Clegg, where young unemployed are helped into jobs by the state paying part of their wages, could work but doesn't go far enough. Labour would pay £1bn a year from a tax on bankers' bonuses to reverse the rise in youth unemployment.

But didn't youth unemployment start soaring under the last Labour government? Balls's response is surprising: he admits Labour dropped its "relentless focus" on tackling young jobless early on in Tony Blair's second term, after 2001 – and when Balls was chief economic adviser to Chancellor Brown. "I think the focus of attention of ministers and the Jobcentre Plus shifted towards expanding employment opportunities for single parents and for people coming off incapacity benefit. As we focused on the next challenge, there is a sense in which we lost some of the intensity of effort on young people."

On the eurozone crisis, Balls has stinging criticism for Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel: "What Germany is doing by refusing to support the proper role of the European Central Bank, by refusing to allow action to prevent contagion spreading to Italy, is playing Russian roulette with the European and world economies."

And how is Miliband doing? Balls says the leader is "making an important long-term argument about the future of our country on the economy", but adds: "Every new leader needs time to establish their identity and who they are." So has Miliband established his identity yet? "I don't think with the wider public yet. I think there's still more to do; that's true for Ed and me and Yvette and all of us. I think that he won great respect for what he did on phone hacking."

This week will be one of the most important for Balls: Osborne is under pressure to show how his austerity agenda will lead to growth, but Balls could miss an open goal. The praise for Osborne must be part psychological game, but the respect they seem to have for each other is convincing.

By the time we get to the subject of the TV programmes that make him cry, Balls seems to relish this new image, however contrived it may seem. Perhaps an admission to being moved by One Man and his Dog is so ludicrous it demonstrates how his leadership ambitions have waned in favour of his wife's. He insists both Cooper and he are backing Miliband, but there is one important question: does his wife cry at Antiques Roadshow? "No, I am not sure Yvette watches it."

Ed and George: Peas in a pod?


Ed: Nottingham High School, Keble College, Oxford

George: St Paul's School, Magdalen College, Oxford

Political career

Ed: Adviser to Gordon Brown; MP since 2005

George: Adviser to William Hague; MP since 2001

Favourite meal

Ed: A 14-hour pulled pork South Carolina barbecue prepared for George

George: Butter-filled leg of lamb on the barbecue for Ed

Favourite sport

Ed: Football, playing himself and watching Norwich City

George: Skiing

Favourite childhood TV programme

Ed: One Man and His Dog

George: Dukes of Hazzard

Karaoke song

Ed: Elvis Presley, "Can't Help Falling in Love"

George: Madonna, "Like a Virgin"

Favourite night out

Ed: Karaoke

George: An evening at the Royal Opera House

Favourite night in

Ed: Watching The X Factor

George: Kitchen table supper