An intimate chat with Ed Balls – about Gordon, his stammer, dressing up in dodgy outfits and the mess we’re in

I interviewed Ed Balls in his office at Portcullis House, next to the House of Commons. He said he was ready to answer ‘the tough questions’ and was as good as his word, although I think he was a bit surprised at times. This is an edited version of the piece which appeared in Live magazine and which can be read in full here. It’s worth saying that I was not given a political line to take by my editors. A political heavyweight with a reputation as a bit of a bruiser, Balls, 44, was Gordon Brown’s right-hand man for years – first as a boy wonder at the Treasury, then as a controversial minister in his own right. He and his wife Yvette Cooper were the first married couple ever to serve in the Cabinet. Now he’s Shadow Chancellor and she’s Shadow Home Secretary. The two MPs travel between London and their Yorkshire constituencies every weekend with their children, Ellie, 12, Joe, ten, and Maddy, seven, all of whom go by their mother’s surname. ‘Growing up with a name like mine makes you tough,’ says Balls. ‘I remember football training as a searing experience. You don’t really mind if your friends laugh at your name, but when the parents do, that’s hard. All the dads having a good laugh at you, aged ten. You have to become thick-skinned. The Tories having a go at me is water off a duck’s back.’

The police caught me talking on the phone while driving, but I’ve never been docked my three points. Yvette and I were on the motorway with three kids in the back. I’m driving, the mobile has a hands-free. I’m having a difficult conversation about the state of the election campaign, with a senior figure. I’m worried we’re going to wake the kids up. So fleetingly, and stupidly, I take the phone off the handset. A moment later there’s a big sign saying the motorway is blocked. We pull up the slip road and there’s a police car. I get pulled over. I say, ‘My fault; I’ll take the hit.’ The following week, I take my licence into a police station, fill in the form. The next day we get a phone call from The Sun. I talk to the reporter and say, ‘It’s a fair cop, stupid of me, I’ll never do it again.’ Two months later I get a letter saying the licence and paperwork have gone missing. They returned my cheque. I have no idea what happened.

Strangers used to ring us to make fun of our name. Balls is a very Norfolk name, so in Norwich, where I was born, there are two pages of us in the phone book. We moved to Nottingham when I was eight and there were perhaps one or two Balls in the whole city – so it was easier for kids in a phone box to find the name and call you. I was watching the 1982 World Cup semi-finals on television and the phone rang. It was somebody wanting to have a laugh at us. ‘Is your name Balls?’ I say, ‘Look, it’s the World Cup. Can you not get a life?’ That was the turning point for me.

Nobody’s ever worked with Gordon Brown and not fallen out with him. Including me? Of course. Regularly. That’s the nature of the man. Sometimes people who have a streak of brilliance in them can also be a complete nightmare.

Yes, I was photographed in a Nazi outfit when I was a student. We had a big dispute with the college in the summer of 1987 over rents. The Junior Common Room wanted a zero per cent rise, but as president I said I wasn’t going to argue for an impossible position. At the Christmas dinner, the members decided that the committee should be required to wear costumes. Mine was chosen by them. They decided I was a dictator. When you’re 20, and it’s the Christmas dinner, do you make a stand as a matter of principle, or do you go along with it? I went along with it. Everyone has their regrets, I’m sure.

We were accused of charging our wedding guests, but that’s unfair. The Eastbourne hotel said, ‘The normal room rate for a weekend off-season would be £50 a night bed and breakfast – but given that you’re going to have the whole wedding here, we’ll reduce the price to £20.’ We said, ‘Well, in that case, the reasonable thing for us to do is to reduce the room rate to £29 for guests and use the other £9 to help us pay for this expensive wedding.’ We sold all the rooms. We were hard up and we had to make it work. I don’t regret it for a second.

I’m not a bully. I’m quite willing to express a point of view, but I’m also happy to let people challenge me. If you’ve grown up with a surname like mine, the one thing you absolutely abhor is bullies. They pick on the weak. The people I’m known for challenging – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – aren’t people who are weak and can’t stand up for themselves.

Once you’ve dealt with the stress of a stammer live on The Andrew Marr Show, nothing else is as difficult. I’ve always had a stammer – it’s not cured, but I don’t conceal it now. For a long time I thought I had to stop it happening, but that was what caused the problem. That’s when it becomes more noticeable. You look away, you look down. I found watching The King’s Speech unbelievably difficult and stressful. It took me back to being ten and 12 and 14. It felt raw. It was impossible not to get tearful. It’s an incredibly powerful film, but also very hopeful. A speech issue is like an iceberg: there’s a little bit above the surface, which is someone being silent, or me trying to avoid a stammer in an interview, but under the surface is this massive tension and worry about letting people down. The King’s Speech shows you the depth of anguish, but the King conquers that. Then you see the release of the pressure and tension in him. In a small way, that was what I had to go through.

Gordon wanted me to challenge him. I never didn’t tell Gordon what I thought. It was very robust. I enjoyed that. Good times and bad times. Things move on. I think I stopped having that relationship with him in the same way in 2004, once I left the Treasury and became an MP. He’ll always be a friend.

I never did brief against Alistair Darling. And I never would. There’s nothing more frustrating than anonymous briefings about anonymous briefings, because what are you supposed to do? It’s total rubbish. Not only have I never done that, but neither has anyone who works for me or does anything on my behalf. Ever. The reason there was no Shadow Treasury operation involving me was because I was unequivocal to Gordon that I wouldn’t be part of that. Was I sitting down having detailed conversations with Gordon, second-guessing Alistair’s decisions on the banks or the budgets? No.

We should have been tougher on the bankers. At the time we were criticised for being too tough. The world had got into the view that the financial markets were going to stay stable. That was a big mistake.

There are things we got wrong as a government. We didn’t deal with the short-termism of the financial markets. We didn’t deal with the regulation of banks. We made some mistakes, from the Dome onwards. I don’t think being extremely relaxed about the filthy rich, as Peter Mandelson said, was the right place for Labour to be. I also think the abolition of the 10p tax rate was one of our worst decisions, because it sent a signal that we’d lost touch with the reality of the lives of people on low incomes.

Hands up, the global financial crisis happened on our watch. Every government that was in power at the time has to bear some of the responsibility. People have the right to be angry at us as well. For the part I played in that global failure of regulation of the banks, I’m sorry. I can’t brush it under the carpet. It’s real, and it affects people in my constituency. The question is, how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?

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