I had no idea what to expect when I went up to sketch Ed Balls for the day in 2005. He was only known as Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, the jargon-laden econo-nerd from the Treasury. I soon learned that the man is human whirlwind, always talking, always moving and not at his best behind the wheel.
From The Times
30 April 2005
Gordon’s protégé can’t be trusted to handle the phone
As a man tipped to be a future Chancellor, Ed Balls may be brilliant at steering the economy but he is terrible behind the wheel of a car.
I realise this too late, for I am already in the passenger seat, clinging to the door as he whips the car round and crashes over a kerb. Mr Balls is taking me on the campaign trail in Normanton, West Yorkshire, although it soon takes on the feel of a comedy car chase.
Nor does Mr Balls know where he is going much of the time. “Left or right?” he asks at a junction. I note that I have never been to Normanton before.
He cackles at this and, for the first time but not the last, takes both hands off the wheel. “OK, let’s go left. I can always do a U-turn!”
Well, I say, now that you are a politician, you will have to get used to that. “Oh no, I’ve got to spend my whole day avoiding symbolism!” he says, heading pellmell down a narrow street.
Mr Balls has often been called the power behind the throne. He was Gordon Brown’s right-hand man for seven years until trying to become an MP himself. I don’t know what I expected from someone who had lived so long inside the magic circle but it wasn’t a K-reg Sierra with 105,000 miles and a wonky bumper.
He says that the car’s great plus is that no one wants to steal it. I don’t think anyone would want to be given it either. He says that it has begun to smell of petrol.
This may be in protest, for Mr Balls is conducting what may be the most frenetic campaign in Britain. I don’t know why, because Labour has a 9,937 majority. Yesterday he must have met 400 people and he wanted all to like him.
“It’s hard not to take things personally,” he says, as a man wearing his slippers tries to enter the Co-op without taking a leaflet. He has the enthusiasm of a puppy but can be rather obsessive.
He was banned from telephone canvassing after his first call took 55 minutes. “He took it super seriously,” Sharon Hargrave, a campaign worker, says shaking her head. “I’m like, chill Ed, just chill.”
But Ed did not chill and has not been allowed near a phone since. His headquarters are the building equivalent of his car. It used to be the Bare Essentials lingerie shop, and knicker and bra sets still turn up in various cupboards.
Its one room is plastered with pictures of Gordon Brown (who else?) who, of course, opened it. The constituency adjoins Pontefract & Castleford, that of his wife, Yvette Cooper, and encircles much of Wakefield.
Mr Balls compares it to a clockface and, as we drive round, keeps saying things such as: “We are at 11 o’clock heading for 10 o’clock.”
I had wondered if he would be able to talk to voters. After all, this is the man who introduced us to the delights of the post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory. But there is more than one way to talk in numbers. There is, for instance, bingo at the Ripley Court residential care home. When we arrive, only a few people are in their seats and Mr Balls charges down dark hallways to invite everyone to come and play.
I have to say that his grasp of bingo terminology is far from post-neoclassical. “Three and three,” he cries from behind his number machine.
“You mean fish, chips and peas,” says a bingo veteran.
“I’m not doing any of that,” he mutters and instead concocts new Labour bingo lingo. After 75, for instance, he adds: “Free television licences.” After 65, it was “council tax rebate”.
He grins after each of these. Mr Balls is having fun with numbers – even if no one else is.