Melissa Kite

How far can Balls bounce?

The Schools Secretary clearly believes his time has come, says Melissa Kite: he has taken off his tie and distanced himself from Brown. But does he have the charisma to succeed?

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As leadership hopefuls go, Ed Balls is not the most obvious candidate to win hearts and minds. A divisive figure behind the scenes and a stilted performer in front of the camera, he has — to put it politely — not always exhibited the qualities most closely associated with future prime ministers. But his reputation as a strategist is legendary, which is probably why there was a frisson of excitement last week when he made a foray into the Labour leadership debate by expressing a sudden enthusiasm for spending cuts.

His swashbuckling pledge to find £2 billion worth of savings raised pulses, not least because Balls has been arguing privately with Lord Mandelson for a long time that matching the Tories on spending reductions is the wrong path to follow. He has been the most vocal supporter of Gordon Brown’s ‘Labour investment versus Tory cuts’ claim. But last week on Andrew Marr’s sofa — sporting a new hairstyle — he seemed to have made a Damascene conversion. For the many Labour MPs whose minds have already turned to a post-defeat leadership election, the sound of a campaign starting gun was unmistakable.

Balls clearly believes his time is coming. He set out his vision just days before Labour delegates gather for their annual conference in Brighton. Ring any bells? It seems like Mr Balls, 42, is now deploying the same tactics to promote himself that he and Mr Brown once used to torment Tony Blair. Such is the theatre of party conferences that next week’s event, intended as a platform for the Prime Minister, may easily turn into a frenzied debate about the leadership potential of Balls — and a question of who, if anyone, can stop him.

Enemies of Mr Balls (of which there are many, inside and outside of Cabinet) would argue that the man who not so long ago posed in an excruciating photo op on a swing, and who has a much-mocked habit of blinking when under pressure, is not best suited to the presentational rigours of leadership. But beneath his gauche, slightly nerdy exterior, there is enough substance to make his critics think twice before discounting him completely as a geek who will never make the transition from backroom policy wonk to statesman.

His manoeuvring has been a long time in the planning and has involved some ruthless treatment meted out to his main rivals (another tactic once deployed for Mr Brown). It was Balls who came up with the killer line ‘this is no time for a novice’, which put David Miliband back in his box last year. He fought tooth and nail with Ed Miliband over the Heathrow runway and has squared up to Harriet Harman on voting reform. Even more audaciously, he made things difficult for Alistair Darling at the Treasury at the height of the credit crunch by allowing his allies to brief privately that he could do a better job. He muscled in by giving a big speech on the economy in February in which he dramatically declared: ‘This is a financial crisis more extreme and more serious than that of the 1930s...’. Number 10 had to put out a statement clarifying his remarks.

And now, with his abandonment of the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted ‘investment versus cuts’ line, he has begun to divorce himself from Brown.

He once painted himself as the continuity candidate, but the problem since his mentor’s reputation on the economy collapsed is that he must now present himself as a candidate of change. If this sounds like savage, disloyal stuff — or just plain absurd — there is a precedent. Brown endured his dysfunctional marriage to Blair for years until he was ready for the divorce himself.

And just as Brown prospered from the alliance, Balls’s 17-year attachment to Brown has served him well. It began when Brown talent-spotted him when he was a 25-year-old leader writer at the Financial Times. Reeling from the disaster of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which he had supported, Mr Brown needed a clever change of policy. The answer Balls came up with was a set of rules for controlling inflation and independence for the Bank of England, an eye-catching scheme which would help sweep Labour to power. Balls had proved himself to be bold and radical.

On his personal website, which now looks as if he has already launched his leadership campaign, he originally had a biography highlighting the lowly roots of his grandparents — but missing out a rather more telling segment. He was privately educated and his father, a renowned zoologist, taught at Eton. At Oxford, where he took the fourth highest first in his year in philosophy, politics and economics, an embarrassing photograph emerged of him dressed in a German officer’s uniform at an all-male drinking society called the Steamers. Bullingdon boys, eat your hearts out.

An uncanny knack for personal PR disasters is not his only problem. Balls comes across as arrogant and is quickly infuriated when anyone dares to disagree with him. He retains support in the party because the Brownites, who would be left rudderless if Gordon went, provide a ready-made power base. Those who question his judgment do not question his intelligence.

His stance against selective education has won him support on the left — which, some of his Cabinet colleagues argue, was the sole intention of his policies. But his appeal to the party’s Blairite wing has been much less certain. James Purnell, for example, loathed Mr Balls and resigned from the government partly in dismay at the prospect, which he feared, of his becoming chancellor.

Nevertheless, everyone at Westminster expects that Balls will be at the forefront of efforts to defeat David Cameron — if not at the next election, then the one after that. His original ten-year plan to succeed an acclaimed Prime Minister Brown has surely changed, and he may now only hope to take over after defeat. It is hardly as tempting a prospect. But no one who knows Mr Balls thinks for a minute that this will diminish his appetite for the challenge.