How Ed Balls reinvented himself (and why this makes him a good politician)
PUBLISHED: 17:42 25 November 2016
The Strictly star set to quickstep back to the top of Brexit Britain
What does Bordeaux’s magnificent 18th century Palais Rohan have in common with Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, built a century later, not for a grand archbishop but for working class holidaymakers, magnificent too in its own way? What they have had in common this week has been political reinvention.
Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, did not actually come top in Sunday’s French primary election to become the mainstream right’s official candidate in next year’s presidential election. He came second behind another former prime minister, the Anglophile Francois Fillon, and lives to fight the second round. But in the process they trashed the hopes of divisive ex president, Nicholas Sarkozy, to stage a Mini Me comeback as France’s Donald Trump.
Heading north across the stormy Bay of Biscay into the grey Irish Sea, which all too often shrouds Blackpool’s most famous landmark in fog, on Saturday night and we would have found the former British cabinet minister, Ed Balls, descending from the Tower Ballroom’s ceiling while playing a piano.
Strictly Come Dancing’s professional judges voted him and his partner, Katya Jones, worst performers for the ninth straight week. But television viewers liked their routine based on Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire and voted again to save them. On towards the finals, Ed!
And there’s the point. Interactive reality TV shows which give the audience a say (who needs those pesky experts?) are part of the current zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Has not Trump just won the American presidency on a reputation which rests more heavily on his reality TV career as dictatorial host of The Apprentice than on the New York property developer’s very chequered business CV? He has.
Voters had come to know Trump the TV host and think they know what he stands for. Brand recognition, as they say. That plus a widespread suspicion (and worse) of Hillary Clinton, some of it justified, was enough to carry the electoral college, if not the popular vote.
I have no idea whether Ed Balls had spotted the potency of the Trump formula when he embarked on his unlikely foray into TV dance competitions. When I heard he was doing Strictly I instinctively felt he was doing the right thing, both personally and professionally. Here was a clever and energetic politician with a serious track record (much of it admirable) who had nonetheless got on the wrong side of political and public opinion. Arrogant and bullying in government, so ex colleagues say, he was the one so often caught bellowing at David Cameron during PMQs. A bit undignified for a shadow chancellor, Ed. So, a work in progress; lots of issues to resolve there for a man who had come a poor third among MPs and activists behind the Miliband brothers in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, and carelessly lost his Leeds suburban seat of Morley and Outwood by just 422 votes in 2015. Balls’s own total only fell by 11 votes, as the Lib Dem share collapsed into UKIP.
For a driven man from a highly competitive family (Bennite veteran, dad Michael, is an emeritus professor and distinguished zoologist, kid brother Andrew a big bucks fund manager) that must have been quite a tumble. Balls had moved from Oxford to Harvard (1988) to the FT (1990), then to be Gordon Brown’s highly influential economics adviser (1994) and not looked back. Fast tracked as an MP (2005) he joined the Brown cabinet as education secretary in 2007 and was only checked when Alistair Darling rightly refused to step aside quietly and let Balls become chancellor in 2009. He is still only 49. If Brits used the French word “enarque” - as in graduate of the ecole nationale d’administration (ENA) - for its multi-purpose technocratic elite, Balls would be one.
A classic enarque elitist, Alain Juppé was also 49 when he became Jacques Chirac’s prime minister in May 1995. It was the apparent climax of a 20 year hike through Chirac’s post Gaullist RPR politics and government office: admired foreign minister, official spokesman, budget minister, party apparatchik. But his welfare reforms provoked massive resistance, Chirac’s election gamble failed in 1997 and Juppe left office immensely unpopular. When in 2004 he was convicted of “abuse of public funds”, as Chirac’s bagman when Chirac was mayor of Paris, he was given a suspended jail sentence (Juppé did not profit personally from the “fake workers” payroll scam) and deprived of the right to run for office for 10 years.
The end? No. He resigned as mayor of Bordeaux (after holding the job since 1995) and successfully appealed his disbarment to be re-elected in 2006. Very soon he was back in government, defence, ecology and foreign minister again, all the while still mayor of the historic wine city of the south west whose fortunes he is credited with transforming from dowdy backwater to a thriving modern metropolis. Two jobs has long been a normal duality in French politics, so that I was once greatly impressed by the 14th July airshow above the small Loire town of Amboise until I learned its mayor was also defence minister. The practice is only now taking hold as a route to central power in newly devolved Britain: think Boris Johnson.
Juppé’s rehabilitation, impossible without widespread public respect in Bordeaux (he is a native of the region), rests on taking the long view of politics and of shifts in his political alignment. Once a Gaullist nationalist on the right he has shifted to a more pro European, consensual and centrist position, denounced as a “traitor” for backing the Maastrict Treaty, moderating his positions on same sex marriage, immigration and burka bans. It has not stopped him suggesting the UK’s French border should be in Dover, not Calais.
Will it do him any good? Thanks to a Fillon’s surge the odds must now be against Juppé taking the supreme prize and the keys of the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris, slightly older than the Palais Rohan. But he would be well placed to see off the populist right’s Trumpish champion, Marine Le Pen, with left and centrist votes if he were to face her in the final round. Either way, Juppé will remain a useful object lesson in the art of reinvention, a willingness to address perceived personal weaknesses and to adapt to new challenges in changing times.
That is what good politicians are for. Winston Churchill did it. The reactionary of the late 20s and 30s, wrong about India and the Abdication, became democracy’s improbable trumpeter in the dark hour of 1940, a benign softie in the 50s, settling strikes on TUC terms.
The two Harolds – Macmillan and Wilson – reinvented themselves from technocratic bores to witty and deft prime ministers, as Ted Heath conspicuously failed to do.
Is that what Balls is about? Reinvention? Despite his commitments on the dance floor he recently found time to write a Harvard academic paper suggesting that a new financial risk-assessment panel (chaired by the chancellor!) might take some regulatory heat off the Bank of England, a target for populist hit squads like other central banks.
It seems regressive, but Balls – whose advice kept sterling out of the euro – is entitled to be heard. Becoming an improbably popular figure with voters thanks to Strictly Come Dancing is a form of public rehabilitation as well as personal catharsis. George Galloway’s foolish foray into reality TV – remember the milk sipping cat routine in the Big Brother House? – showed how NOT to do it. Balls has been much smarter. Brand Balls now has major name recognition. If he wants to get back into elective politics when the dust has settled on the Corbyn era he will do so as a wiser and more savvy figure. It may not be the Juppé way, but Brexit Britain is not France.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian
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