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Hugo Rifkind

Dear God, am I going to have to start liking Ed Balls?

All public people are really two people, and I suppose I shouldn’t be so freaked out. But I am

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

What the hell is going on with Ed Balls? Back in the horrible doldrums of the last Labour government, he was the most reliable total bastard around. There was Gordon Brown himself, of course, throwing phones at people and using his special sinister voice when he spoke about children, and Damian McBride, who had a reputation for being the nastiest spin-doctor there ever was, although he only ever texted me twice and actually quite nicely. Balls, though, was the spirit animal who tied the whole thing together.

So many years later, it is almost impossible to convey how weary and stale that government was by the end. How it seemed to only have two modes, which were moments of belligerent chaos and the lulls between them, during which it sat there, covered in the crumbs of its own garage snacks, breathing too fast. If David Cameron seemed fresh, likeable and normal back then, and he did, then Balls was at least part of the reason why. Built like his boss, but with Hitler hair, his face seemed to be locked in a permanent sneer of furious disdain for people who didn’t know what post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory was. And the fact that his wife was Yvette Cooper somehow seemed to remove all possibility of a hinterland; even the Milibands weren’t actually married to each other. However little you knew about him, you knew he was no fun at all.

Well, not any more. This weekend — and brace yourself here for a phrase I might have written as frankly lacklustre satire in 2009 — Ed Balls is to be a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. He shall wear sequins, presumably, and run his hand up and down the face of some colt-like dancing professional in a manner that is a bit sexy but not too sexy for family television. And then he shall stand, sweaty and solemn in front of a panel of judges, while they tell him that he gave it 110 per cent but he needs more cha-cha-cha. And crowds will cheer, and excited, normal teenagers will want his autograph, and he’ll be in the tabloids again but this time on the same page as Taylor Swift, and people in the stands will wave banners that say things such as ‘HAVING A BALLS’, and I for one will feel like I am completely losing my mind.

Politics isn’t really showbiz for ugly people. Most who straddle the two — your Lembits and Danczuks — were never destined for high office, anyway. Whereas Balls, had circumstances been different, could have gone all the way. Everybody always said he was extremely clever, and not even with that unspoken ‘but could also get lost in his own front hall’ subtext that, with politicians, is normally the way. ‘That guy could be running Goldman Sachs,’ a colleague of mine used to say. And yet there he is, instead, in heels.

My first theory was that it had to be a midlife crisis. Yet parallel with Ed Balls’s appearance on Strictly (a phrase I still cannot believe I am writing) will be the publication of his autobiography. One widely shared passage has him heading off on holiday in the family car and realising he’s forgotten a joint of beef, just as Brown calls him to say that Peter Mandelson has resigned. ‘Where’s the beef?’ Ed yells at Yvette. ‘That is the beef!’ Brown yells back. Proper sitcom repartee, and with a hero who is chatty, clownish, and with a jolly sense of his own absurdity. Almost exactly like he always seemed he wasn’t.

My next theory was that it was a pose. A ruse of reinvention — show, book and all. Having failed to be Gordon Brown, could he now be trying to be Boris Johnson? But that, I think, becomes overly conspiratorial and perhaps a little paranoid. The true conclusion has to be that we were wrong. That everybody was wrong. That Ed Balls is not the horrifying bully we always thought, and he never was. Inside, all along, he was dancing.

The Sun, this week, dredged up an interview that Theresa May gave to her local magazine in Maidenhead, in which our new PM, so flinty hard on the outside, spoke of her love of shoes and flowers and worried about the size of her nose. Somehow, I also find myself thinking of the things Gerry Adams says on Twitter, and how, after a lifetime of defending the unilateral murder of British servicemen, Sinn Fein’s president now enjoys trampolining naked with his dog. All public people are really two people, and I suppose we all should know this. So none of us should really be so freaked out by the thought of Ed Balls doing a tango in a unitard cut to his navel. Although personally I still am. Hairy chest, do you think?

Apple’s core mission

Reading this week about the European Commission’s verdict that Apple should pay €13 billion in back taxes to Ireland (even though Ireland doesn’t want it), I was reminded of Steve Jobs’s famous, if possibly apocryphal, excuse for being unkeen on charitable giving. According to a pair of his friends interviewed by the New York Times in 2011, Jobs always felt he could better serve the world by keeping the cash and expanding his company.

As excuses go, it’s a good one, not least because it may even have been true. Embedded within there, though, you’ll find a glimpse of the worldview which makes these tech behemoths all but ungovernable. Tax is the ultimate act of deference to pre-existing societal structures. Yet the core mission of any tech company is to render those structures obsolete, because they reckon they can do better. They’ve done it with CDs and cameras, taxis and bookshops. Why should tax be any different?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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