The Spectator

Calls from Balls

The Spectator on Ed Balls' claims about the public finances

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Tuesday was a busy day for Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Not only did he launch ‘Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future’, the government’s new White Paper on schools reform, a document which he claimed enshrined ‘a radical devolution of power to head teachers, backed up by stronger accountability, and an uncompromising approach to school improvement so every child succeeds’. He also found time to phone two Spectator journalists — in one case, repeatedly — to harangue them at length about a post on our Coffee House blog.

The post in question, by our political editor, Fraser Nelson, took strong issue with Mr Balls over his performance on Tuesday’s BBC Today programme. In the interview, the Schools Secretary had declared: ‘We have acted in the downturn, that will mean that the economy is stronger, we’ll have less unemployment, less debt…’ Which came as something of a surprise, given that Britain’s total public debt is at record levels: government debt was £775 billion last month, is forecast in the Budget to rise steadily to a staggering £1.4 trillion by 2013/14 and is then forecast to keep on rising — albeit more slowly — for at least another decade. There are no plans, anywhere, for ‘less debt’. On 24 June, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, told the Treasury select committee that the scale of these deficits was ‘truly extraordinary’. So, given the incontrovertible facts, what was Mr Balls up to? In his Coffee House post, Fraser concluded, ‘Team Brown is adopting a new strategy: repeat a lie, as often as possible, hoping the interviewer will not stop or correct you.’ You might have thought that the Schools Secretary would have been too preoccupied with the future of our children’s education and the white paper to take umbrage at a single post. But Mr Balls, it appears, can always make time for umbrage-taking. He telephoned Fraser and — claiming a ministerial prerogative power over the media of which we were previously unaware — instructed him to ‘take that post down now’. Separately, he also called the Spectator’s editor, Matthew d’Ancona, four times. When they finally spoke, he issued the same instruction to ‘take the post down’. Offered the chance to explain why we were wrong in his own online contribution, Mr Balls declined and proceeded to question our integrity, motives and so on. Perhaps we should not make light of such a matter, but there is something splendidly entertaining about being lectured on the ethics of the web by a friend of Damian McBride.

Mr Balls insisted that when he said ‘less debt’, he was referring to debt ratio: the ratio of national debt to gross domestic product which is forecast in the Budget (optimistically) to start falling in eight to nine years time. Yet — as he must know perfectly well — when listeners to the Today programme heard the words ‘less debt’, they will have thought, quite reasonably, that he meant ‘less money owed by the government’. They will then have wondered, no less reasonably, why, yet again, a senior minister was taking the public for fools. Either Mr Balls was lying when he spoke or — much more alarmingly — he was in the grip of Orwellian doublethink, genuinely persuaded for a moment that black is white, and two plus two makes five.

Normally, the traffic between ministers and journalists does not warrant repetition. But this is an unsettling parable of all that has gone wrong with this government in its dying months. On a day meant to be devoted to a major policy reform, the senior minister unveiling the proposals is busy hectoring bloggers. He is offered the opportunity to rebut the argument and declines angrily: only absolute obedience to his instructions will do. And he stands by a position (in this case on public debt) which is clearly untenable because, in the Brownite universe, it is unthinkable to retract: to adapt Solzhenitsyn, ‘We Never Make Mistakes’. Sorry, Mr Balls, but you do; and, as you will discover on election day, the voters have well and truly rumbled you.