The Sketch: A tale of two Eds – Balls' loss turns out to be Miliband's gain

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The Independent Online

You must have noticed Ed Balls working at his reinvention. It's "new balls please" in the shadow Home Office. For years he was the sorcerer's apprentice, the imp who mixed the phials of poison for his boss Brown. He handled Damian McBride, he stoked the loathing for Tony Blair. And he could win almost any fight because there were two of him.

Ed Miliband, on becoming leader, had to park the formidable tag-team where they could least affect him. He put Mrs Balls into a non-attack department, and set Balls himself up against a woman. Balls' most obvious talent (beefy, burly, bullying) was at a stroke neutralised. It's fun for all to see Michael Gove hung up on coathooks by his underpants, but try that on Theresa May and it looks like domestic abuse.

So in a perfectly political way, Ed Miliband has weakened his front bench and strengthened his own position. First things first.

And how is the new Balls? The softer Balls, the kinder Balls, the nicer Balls? Personally I can't tell the difference. If he has changed at all he's become a little more remote (always a relief), a little more austere, and his smile a little more reluctant. In sum, he's more like a leader than the leader. Not that that makes him leaderly, but...

But that's a long way of introducing Theresa May's immigration cap. It was variously described as a con, a figleaf and what I heard as a damp squid.

She said she was bringing net immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Balls asked her one big question – was she going to do this by 2015? She avoided answering that so brazenly that she was asked a second and third time by different backbenchers. By then, Ms May had her answer sorted out for Steve McCabe.

She had been absolutely clear about it, clear about the election campaign and Coalition document, and it was absolutely clear what they would clearly do. But opposition hilarity showed they felt they had discovered something Ed Balls called "a U-turn on a U-turn".

Maybe they had. But when a new MP read out James Brokenshire's undertaking in Hansard to have it all done by 2015, Ms May used the ultimate weapon in an immigration debate: a funny foreign accent. "Listen carefully," she said in a way I can't reproduce. It was like a French person imitating an English person's French accent for a Polish sit-com. "I am only going to say this once." It was her intention, or the Government intended, or they were aiming to do it.

The opposition claimed victory, the Government bathed itself gently in the glow of office, Ed Balls felt his stature growing in that peculiar parliamentary tumescence, and everyone seemed to be happy.

Except for cheerful Ian Davidson, who pointed out that in his constituency, unskilled and semi-skilled workers from Europe were undercutting the local rate for labour. How could that be controlled, given that most of the migrants were from the EU? There was no answer to that, not even in a Latvian accent.