Ed Balls forgets a name: we’ve all done it, but then, we’re not all Shadow Chancellor

Ed Balls’s Newsnight slip-up was bad news for Labour for two reasons

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I felt sorry for Ed Balls when I watched his Newsnight interview. We all know the feeling of forgetting someone’s name. Being able to remember names is one of the trivial skills of being a good politician: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Ed Miliband are all unnaturally good at it. Balls, despite the quad-core processing power of one of the best brains on either front bench, is not so good at the routine functions of being an effective television performer.

It was a trivial slip, but it matters. It matters because Labour really does not have any serious support among business leaders. Bill Thomas, whose name Balls remembered immediately after his interview, used to work for Hewlett Packard but is now semi-retired, with a few directorships and a holiday cottage business.

Despite Miliband’s opposition to a referendum on EU membership, which ought to endear Labour to an important part of the business interest, the party has no endorsements from the chief executives of any large companies.

It was a problem for the party in 2010, and it will be a problem for it again. Business support suggests a party that knows about creating wealth as well as spending it. Miliband tried to make the best of the criticism from Stefano Pessina, the Boots chief executive, by pointing out that he lives in Monaco and that the company doesn’t pay any more tax than it has to. That might cheer the core vote but it won’t reassure the uncommitted.

And Balls’s senior moment matters for another reason. He knows he is not great on television – or in the House of Commons for that matter – and he knows he needs to work harder than someone with a natural facility for the tricks of such performances. Which business people are supporting Labour? is not a hard question to anticipate. As I say, it was a question in 2010 and it is a question now. It would be elementary preparation for anyone taking his job seriously to make a list and memorise it. It would not have looked bad, if Labour staff could have padded out a list of more than six names, for Balls to have produced it from his pocket and said, “Here we are: let me read them out to you.”

That the shadow chancellor could not be bothered to do a bit of basic homework for a television interview suggests that he has given up on the election. And that is really bad news for Labour.