Ed Balls has some wise words for us all about Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and the future of the Labour Party

'There are times [in politics] when you feel mistakes happening at the time, you physically feel the mistake happening. At the moment this feels to me like a mistake happening'

Ed Balls, signing copies of his book at King's College, London, last night
Ed Balls, signing copies of his book at King's College, London, last night

Ed Balls did the Strand last night: not on Strictly Come Dancing, but at the Strand Group of King’s College, London, for the launch of his memoir, Speaking Out. “Ed and I don’t come out well,” he said of his former leader, Ed Miliband, “because we were the team that lost.”

The new self-deprecating, emotionally open Balls was honest about the sense of loss he felt. But he said it came in 2010, when he came out of government, not last year, when he lost his seat. “Opposition is never as purposeful after you’ve been in government as it is before.” And generally, “Opposition is a hideous place to be.”

He didn’t sound as if he were trying to make himself feel better about losing his seat when he said: “I’m not sure whether it’s a great parliament to be in.” He deflected a question about whether Yvette Cooper, his wife, was enjoying it, by saying he didn’t think Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg thought it was better to be an MP than not – “not that they want to be on Strictly”.

He claimed that he and Ed Miliband had been close, and that the National Insurance contribution rise in 2002 to pay for NHS spending “wouldn’t have happened but for the two of us”. But Miliband decided to keep his distance in 2010, when they competed for the Labour leadership. After that their relationship was not close, and Miliband didn’t consult many people: “More than Gordon he kept things tight.”

Jeremy Corbyn: One year as Labour leader

Balls was asked about the possibility of returning to the Commons, and said that he thought the chances of the National Executive choosing him as the candidate for a by-election were “pretty thin”. (There are by-elections pending in Witney and in Batley and Spen, next door to his old Morley and Outwood seat.)

“I’m not sure retreads work in politics,” he said. He recalled the experience of Michael Portillo, one of the best-known scalps of the 1997 election, who returned to the Commons, served as shadow chancellor and tried to become leader before finally standing down again in 2005. “Three days after the general election I had a call from Michael Portillo, asking to do a Panorama interview for an hour.” Balls declined. He said Portillo’s “discovery that he was better off out took quite a long time”.

However, he said, after reviewing the political outlook, “someone’s got to save the Labour Party”.

He said a Labour split would be “foolish” and “massively premature”: the costs would be too high in relation to the chance of success. He suggested that it would not be until Jeremy Corbyn was defeated in a general election that there would be a “galvanising choice around which you could persuade people to join the party”.

The book is easy to read. He dictated it, rather than typing or handwriting it. It is full of unexpected insights into his experience as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Last night he became animated and focused when asked about Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children’s services at Haringey council, sacked after the Baby P scandal. He said he should have challenged his legal advice, because his decision was overturned in the Appeal Court.

This is a theme that often comes up in discussions with former ministers at the Strand Group or in our classes at the Policy Institute at King’s: the good ones don’t always accept the first legal advice they are given.

On the EU referendum he rehearsed his view that “David Cameron’s big mistake was to allow the status quo to become the offer”. He didn’t agree with Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum, but said Labour’s policy should be, consistent with the referendum, to stay “politically and economically close” to the rest of Europe.

He thought a second referendum couldn’t be advocated “so quickly after the referendum without looking arrogant”. He said he couldn’t imagine a Labour candidate in a marginal seat, many of which voted Leave by 65 or 70 per cent, saying to constituents: “You were wrong; vote for us.”

He teased fellow visiting professor and former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nick Macpherson about his nomination for a peerage. “Are you a lord?” (He isn’t yet.) They discussed Tony Blair’s attitude towards the euro, and Balls’s theory that Blair was “ambivalent” about it, never seriously thinking he could win a referendum on it.

Balls was at his most interesting, I thought, when he discussed learning from mistakes: “There are times in politics when you make mistakes and you don’t realise at the time. And you learn. A good example is the change to Labour’s electoral college [which took] the party out of the mainstream. The situation [now] is much, much worse than the 1980s but we didn’t know what we were doing.

“And there are times when you feel mistakes happening at the time, you physically feel the mistake happening. At the moment this feels to me like a mistake happening. Theresa May not defining Brexit and trying to allow a bit of chaos and stand above fighting ministers: that feels like a mistake.” He said: “There are only so many times you can go on The Andrew Marr Show and not answer any of the questions.”

He thought that May’s mistakes were partly the fault of weak opposition, and recalled Labour’s experience: “A strongly led Conservative Party in 2001 would have been the best thing that could have happened to us. The overriding story became Blair-Brown and the succession. Everything was seen through the prism of Blair versus Brown and who was going to succeed him, Brown or someone from the Blair camp.

“The best thing for Theresa May would be for the Labour Party to get a grip on itself. It was terrible for us that Iain Duncan Smith became leader of the Conservative Party.”

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