The reviews of Ed’s book, ‘Speaking Out’

‘Reading Speaking Out, I found myself agreeing with Ed Balls’


Balls is clear that his defeat in his constituency in 2015 was a prelude to a funeral and life outside politics. I don’t believe a word of it.

I was intrigued by the prospect of reading a book by a fellow politician (now, like me, an ex-politician) with a shared background in economics and a shared hinterland including Strictly and football. My curiosity grew as I read the introductory section about a political funeral I also attended where the emotions that he describes matched mine in excruciating detail. And then I discovered that, although we hardly know each other, after parliamentary and ministerial careers spent in our tribal enclosures, our views on economic policy and political philosophy are more similar than our respective tribes would approve of.

Ed Balls’s Speaking Out is an enjoyable read. He forsakes the easy path of chronological narrative for a succession of essays on specific themes (there are 27 in all). It is initially disconcerting to move backwards and forwards through time, but the device works and some of the essays stand alone as little gems of insight and reflection.

Not knowing Balls well, I had lazily assumed that the popular stereotype of the intellectual and political bully was probably right. That is how he came across in parliament and in the media. The book illuminates quite a different person: someone who makes generous and nuanced judgements of foes as well as friends and tries hard to understand the motives of people who have crossed him.

He is especially kind in his assessment of George Osborne as a sympathetic albeit professionally ruthless human being, whom he contrasts favourably with the altogether colder and less empathetic David Cameron. Having seen both at close quarters, I would agree. He is also far more understanding of and well disposed towards Tony Blair than the common view of his role as Gordon’s hatchet man in the Brownite v Blairite conflict suggests. He reminds readers that Blair and Brown were very close politically, that they were an effective partnership in delivering Labour’s main reforms and aligned with each other against the forces of darkness in the Labour Party (now firmly in the ascendant, to Balls’s evident disgust). The shadows that fell on the relationship after Blair announced his intention to seek a third term have obscured the positives.

Balls tries but struggles to be equally kind to Ed Miliband. He judges him politically rather than personally and explores two huge errors that caused Labour lasting damage: the “brain fade” in his 2014 pre-election conference speech, which omitted agreed lines on Budget discipline and immigration; and the change in leadership election rules that opened the door to Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover. Nick Clegg also gets a bad report, not for joining the coalition but for being too close to the Tories when in office.

For policy wonks and those, including myself, who were directly involved in the debates, there is particular interest in Balls’s account of the Labour government’s economic performance in the run-up to the financial crisis. As the City minister in the Treasury, Balls had an active role and earned a reputation as an apologist for the financial services sector at a time of excess. Though he is self-critical, he falls back on the explanation that the 2007-2008 crash was located in sub-prime mortgage lending in the US.

Indeed, it was. Yet there is little acknowledgement that his government was blind to the dangers incubating in global banks based in the UK and in the build-up of household leverage in the British economy, which fuelled consumer demand at the expense of investment and exports. To his credit, however, he acknowledges the grave error in not following up the Cruickshank report in 2000, which pinpointed the dysfunctional nature of UK banking, especially its disconnect from productive business activity.

Balls is on much firmer ground when he defends the Labour government’s record in fiscal policy, which was shamefully but successfully misrepresented by Osborne and, I regret, by some of my party’s spokesmen. (He may not remember that in Queen’s Speech debates I went to some trouble to defend that record, causing considerable annoyance on my side.)

During the coalition years he was torn between the political imperative to throw red meat to his supporters and the economics, which was more complex. His warning of a “triple-dip recession” was an embarrassing hostage to fortune (the recession failed to appear). Yet I agree with his assessment that we relied too heavily on monetary policy and could have used fiscal policy more, especially public investment financed by very cheap government borrowing. He places too much emphasis, however, on the negative effect of an early round of fiscal tightening, when the damage caused by addiction to monetary stimulus has been more apparent over time.

Balls argues that his biggest achievement in economic policy was helping to keep Britain out of the euro. Notably, he credits Blair with initial scepticism and Brown with having a more positive position (though the roles subsequently reversed). I rather share Brown’s pragmatic view that the project was not inherently good or bad for Britain but depended on the conditions. We can only speculate about the counterfactual case in which Britain joined, insisting on a non-deflationary monetary and fiscal framework and at a competitive exchange rate that would have averted the long period of UK currency overvaluation, which knocked the stuffing out of British manufacturing (a subject to which Balls does not give even a passing mention here).

The most passionate and telling sections of the book – and the most relevant to the future of Labour – are his vigorous defence of a mixed economy and the necessary compromises involved in a social-democratic government operating in a capitalist system. He has a barely concealed contempt for the type of politics now on offer from the Labour leadership, which regards government as a den of iniquity and power as a miasma of sin. For him, politics is all about getting into power and trying to make the world a better place within the inevitable constraints – a philosophy I share.

Ed Balls is very clear that his defeat in his constituency in 2015 was a prelude to a funeral and life outside politics. I don’t believe a word of it. I suspect that the funeral was a prelude to a resurrection. This book will help him rise from the dead.




Very few political books stand the test of time. Three months after they come out they’re forgotten. Ed Balls can be proud that his book will be different. It’s not a conventional political memoir in that it’s not chronological and doesn’t pretend to be a learned, intellectually based book, which sets out the author’s massive contribution to political history. Instead, it’s set out in a series of themed chapters, each containing many lessons to anyone who is involved in politics at whatever level. There’s a certain therapeutic nature as Balls unburdens himself. It’s almost as if when he got to the end he breathed a massive sigh of relief and muttered to himself in the direction of the reader: “do your worst”.

There is little self-justification contained in this book. In fact, it really is warts and all. Ed Balls is open and honest about a myriad of things he now believes he got wrong, as well as the odd thing he got right. He reckons in retrospect that he knew the financial crash at the time was coming. He and others spotted the fault lines, but somehow failed to join up the dots. Six months before it happened, the Treasury ‘wargamed’ a financial crash in which a northern building society got into financial trouble having over-extended itself. Who’d have thought?

In some ways may of the chapters provide rock hard evidence that most political failures are cock-ups rather than conspiracy. They also show that Ed Balls is very far from the bullying political bruiser he is often portrayed as. He is very far away from the shadowy figure who was Gordon Brown’s enforcer. This book is full of wonderfully human anecdotes, often involving the chaos of the Balls-Cooper family like, and proves that politicians are actually just the same as the rest of us – with the same foibles, aims, ambitions and experiences.

The only place I thought Ed Balls wasn’t quite on top of the actualite, was when he was talking about the TeeBeeGeeBees, which he downplays to the point of unbelievability. Compare his version with the version in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, and I think I know which is the more accurate. He acknowledges that the running battles between Blair and Brown got in the way of the Blair government achieving what it could have, but fails to give the reader the depth of the split between them that clearly existed.

Where Balls is strongest is where he goes into events in which he was intimately involved. The inner contortions he went through over whether to sack Sharon Shoesmith in the Baby P case, is a good example. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Welcome the life of a Secretary of State, where making decisions is often a lonely experience.

We complain loudly nowadays that we have elected a generation of politicians with no hinterland. On the face of it Ed Balls was one of them. Oxford, special adviser, MP, Minister. That’s the career path taken by so many politicians nowadays, a career path barely interrupted by any kind of life outside politics. Ed Balls doesn’t shrink from this. His only job outside politics was as a journalist at the Financial Times. Yet the pages of his book brim with real life experience and many interests outside politics.

Ten years ago I loathed Ed Balls. To me he represented all that was dreadful about politics under New Labour. That was because I failed to look beneath the surface and believed the conventional wisdom.

I now think it’s very sad that he is, for the moment at least, lost to the political world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that losing his seat may well be the best thing that ever happened to him. Serving as a Labour MP under Jeremy Corbyn would have been torture for him.

It’s sad that he’s no longer a leading Labour MP because I think that his experiences over the last few years would have prepared him well for the leadership of his party. Sadly, because of a past from which he could never escape, it was never going to happen. He’s got the intellect, the self-knowledge, the communicative ability and presence to have made a very good prime minister. Never say never, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which it will now happen, but we certainly haven’t heard the last of Ed Balls.

In fact, I suspect he is having the time of his life – lecturing at Harvard, chairing the board of Norwich City Football Club, Strictly Come Dancing contestant. But all these roles are transient.

Alastair Campbell left Downing Street in August 2003. Thirteen years later he has yet to take on a big role, concentrating instead on writing books, taking on various short term roles and earning money from public speaking. I’ve always thought he yearns for one more big role.

Ed Balls must avoid the danger of being seduced by short term enjoyment. He has a big role left in him, even if neither he nor I have a clue what it might be.

I usually only read political and football biographies. Some time ago I compiled a list of my favourite political books. Were I to compile such a list today I have no doubt that SPEAKING OUT would make the top twenty. It deserves to sell well, and if you are at all interest in the body politic, you should read it. I can almost guarantee you will both enjoy it and learn from it. It’s a book which should be read not only by current cabinet ministers, but everyone involved in politics at whatever level. I can’t recommend it too highly.


‘Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics by Ed Balls’


Few people are able to read their own obituaries. Ed Balls has. Everyone can remember the moment last year when the former shadow chancellor was killed off at the age of 48 by the voters of Morley and Outwood. Few of the obits were kind.

Now Balls is trying some instant rehabilitation by stepping on to the red carpet for Strictly Come Dancing. If he had merely returned to public life to pirouette in sequins, I would still see him as a self-obsessed, lasagne-making bruiser. A politician who refused to take any blame for the financial crash; a man who insisted on practising his grade four piano every morning while his wife got the children up.

His book, Speaking Out, changes all that. This memoir about the lessons he has learnt in life and politics is amusing, insightful, knowing and self-deprecating. After the first chapter I felt guilty at having laughed over his defeat on the morning of May 8 last year, an event he admits he hadn’t even contemplated happening to him. He describes how he was determined not to crack in front of the cameras when the result was announced. “Even though my mind was racing, that typically English instinct kicked in: when you receive bad news in public you have to demonstrate your decorum, and under no circumstances betray any emotion. You just thank people, smile . . . and behave like a good sport.”

The shock must have been huge. He admits he thought on election day that, “at 21:59:59 there would be a chance I would be delivering the next budget”. Now he wouldn’t even keep his seat.

Balls has spent the past year well. Rather than carping from the sidelines, he has expanded his culinary repertoire, worked towards his grade five piano exam and thought hard about the lessons he has learnt since he entered politics in 1994, when mobile phones were still so large his boss Gordon Brown could barely hold his in two hands.

The book is arranged in thematic chapters with titles such as “Loyalty”, “Civility” and “Vulnerability” rather than chronologically. Nonetheless, he does give a few hints at his childhood. Balls is a Norfolk name that covers two pages in the Norwich phone directory. So it was a rude shock for young Ed to move to Nottingham and find that he was ridiculed for his surname at his new school. Undeterred, he stood up in his first assembly in his Norwich City football kit and lectured his new schoolmates, proving he really does have balls.

Although he likes to think of himself as very English, he still comes across as more of an Italian mafia type. He has strong likes and dislikes, although these aren’t always tribal and are often surprising. I was amazed by his obvious respect for George Osborne, with whom he often clashed at the dispatch box. He tells how Osborne once babysat his son while they were guests on a TV show. On the other hand, he obviously loathes David Cameron — “In the ten years we shared the same corridors in parliament, he never said a word or even gave a nod when we passed.”

The chapter on his stammer is perhaps the most moving. I remember interviewing him about it while he was in the shadow cabinet and wondering whether he was just using it to garner sympathy. But “Blinky Balls”, as he became known, really did freeze and obviously found public speaking an ordeal. Despite that, he didn’t once think of changing his career; it just made him determined to try harder.

He spent a decade as Brown’s closest adviser before he became an MP. He divides advisers into two categories — “amplifiers and absorbers”. He was an absorber. He spoke to Brown every day for 13 years. “He used me as a lightning conductor” and in many ways these seem like some of the happiest times of his political life.

He is revealing on the bizarre Blair-Brown years, having been the only other person, a “gooseberry” at the Granita dinner. “Polenta was famously on the menu that night, and I recall it because Gordon had to ask me what it was,” he writes. As the third person in the relationship, he also describes walking into the prime minister’s room at a conference in Helsinki in 1999 and finding “Tony in a white dressing gown, and Gordon in his full suit, as tended to be their way”.

Balls gives some insight into Brown’s character. In 2002 Balls and Brown were travelling to Washington on Concorde when an hour into the flight the plane gave a huge jolt and began to plunge from 56,000ft to 31,000ft. Balls writes, “Gordon said: ‘Well, here we are.’ And I said: ‘Yep, maybe this is it.’ ” When the plane got to 24,000ft, Brown turned to Balls: “What do you think? Should we finish my speech?” There was no histrionics, no shouting. Balls says he was a “fine companion when facing imminent death”.

When he became prime minister, Brown offered Balls the chancellorship five times only to take it away. He is phlegmatic about this, but says he felt deeply wounded and “hung out to dry” only when Brown backed Ed Miliband to succeed him in 2010.

His own relationship with Ed Miliband, with whom Balls once shared an office, was evidently more fraught than the TB-GB one. Miliband’s seat was only 20 miles up the road in Doncaster, but he never came to a meal, although Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper, often asked him, and Cooper had once shared a flat with Miliband. The two men talked to each other only twice during the four-week 2015 general election campaign, which even Balls admits was “astonishingly dysfunctional”. He concludes not that the other Ed must dislike him, but that Miliband didn’t want a second older brother; although he says he has kept some “gin and tonics” in the fridge in case they ever make up.

Balls mentions his relationship with Cooper only fleetingly. They celebrate the close of every party conference with a Big Mac and she is clearly his lightning conductor. As the first husband and wife to be in the cabinet, they were aware that focus groups thought less of them as a married couple. That is part of the reason why they tried to avoid being questioned about their marriage. He also made an astute decision to keep his family out of politics. The book is dedicated to his children, but he admits that he regularly went “four or five days without seeing our children” while education secretary.

The parts of the book that focus on policy rather than personalities are less intriguing. Balls was not shy as an MP about holding forth about his views on any area, even those not under his remit, and of taking credit for things such as the independence of the Bank of England. He also insists that he cut his much-mocked phrase “post neoclassical endogenous growth theory” from the final draft of a speech that Brown was giving, but his boss insisted on reinserting it. “He was pretty annoyed at me” when the media bashed him. (The book’s style is surprisingly chatty and informal for someone who came up with such a clunky phrase.)

The Balls of this book admits he wants to be known as a “pacy striker” rather than as a “bruiser” and says: “I’ve never played a game . . . without trying to win.” I felt sorry for him after reading about how he lost his seat, but having finished the book I think he would have hated to win and be in opposition for another five years. He calls Labour now “irrelevant” and dismisses “Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist utopian fantasy”. He is far better off teaching at Harvard and perfecting his samba for Saturday nights.

My only real criticism is his corny ending: “And what a lot of flowers I’ve smelled along the way.” Cooper should have taken him aside and had a quiet word. It is dreadful and he should change it for the paperback.


‘Speaking Out by Ed Balls review – ready to use the word ‘failure’’


So when Ed Balls describes meeting Dolly Parton as one of the highlights of his career or admits that travel to exotic locations was a perk of ministerial summits, it feels as if he is spilling a banal yet well-kept trade secret: politicians sometimes get a childlike kick out of their jobs because they get to do cool stuff that, as children, they never imagined they might do.

And anyone who watched Balls jiggling in a tightly focused frenzy on his Strictly Come Dancing debut last weekend could see in that sturdy 49-year-old man the visual echo of a boy. It is the child, equal parts self‑conscious and attention-seeking, rattling around in the frame of a heavyweight politician, that makes Speaking Out more intriguing than many political memoirs. We meet him playing football alone, winning imaginary FA Cups in his back garden. There is a glimpse of him at school, weathering taunts about his surname, his skin thickening, his confidence crystallising, shiny but brittle.

The book mostly covers the adventures of a more familiar Balls, lieutenant to Gordon Brown in government and bellower of unheard economic arguments at George Osborne in opposition. The story is told not chronologically but as a series of thematic questions, pegged to dilemmas from the author’s 21-year career. The competition between caution and risk-taking, for example, is illuminated by the Brown team’s bungled handling of a snap election that was mooted and aborted in 2007. The question of how to navigate between level-headed calculation and emotional urgency is explored from the desk of a cabinet minister reading the horrific case file of Baby P. A recurrent motif is the tension between a politician’s instinct to assume control and the inevitability of its surrender, whether in designing financial regulation or trying to have a family life free from media intrusion.

Like all political memoirists, Balls awards himself ample benefit of the doubt when it comes to the big judgments. He owns up to many micro-mistakes, but anyone hoping for a recantation on macroeconomics before or after the financial crisis will be disappointed. He is loyal to Brown. References to his mentor’s notorious temper are euphemistic. Perhaps surprisingly, given the famous feud that consumed so much energy at the height of the New Labour era, Balls also treads delicately around Tony Blair, whose judgment he obviously respects. The same cannot be said of Ed Miliband, who is depicted as a weak leader, playing a difficult hand badly.

There is humility to compensate for the passages of shifty self-exculpation. Balls is not afraid to admit weakness, at least not any more. He cannot deny that warning signs of financial calamity in the run-up to the great crash were missed. Instead, he uses that lapse as the basis for a rumination on the importance of interrogating received wisdom and the perilous temptation for politicians to dismiss as unthinkable the things that they would rather not think about. That, he argues, is how pro-Europeans missed early warnings of Britain’s march towards Brexit and why veterans of New Labour fatally underestimated the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn to their party’s demoralised activist core.

Balls is refreshingly ready to use the word “failure” for a career that ended before reaching his coveted destination. He thought he had a chance of becoming chancellor, until election night in May 2015. The book begins in self-deprecatory mode with Balls in shock, unexpectedly ousted from his parliamentary seat that night, toasting the death of his political persona at a mock wake with close aides.

The defeat was bereavement, but grief gave way to acceptance. Cynics will see Balls’s sudden reinvention as a TV personality – cooking on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off; donning the Strictly sequins – as another political campaign, a ruse to pursue the old dogged ambition by other means. Same programme, different channel. But Speaking Out feels much more like the obituary for an old life than a manifesto for a new one.

Besides, authenticity is hard to fake and Balls was never much good at spin. He was reputedly a clever economist and crafty behind-the-scenes operator, but even his staunchest allies would concede that he struggled with the performance aspect of politics. His best speeches were noted for analytical rigour, not theatrical flourish. His worst ones, the haranguing responses to Osborne’s autumn statements, are engraved in the annals of parliamentary self-destruction.

The root of the problem was an interiorised stammer – a condition that manifests itself in sudden verbal freezes, inaudible on the outside, but panic-inducing on the inside. The chapter dealing with Balls’s late realisation that his problem even had a name – he was a cabinet minister before it was diagnosed – his initial reluctance to get treatment and subsequent decision to go public, is compelling and affecting. Acknowledgment of the stammer begins a narrative thread that reconciles Balls the attack dog of Westminster legend and hate figure for the Tories (and, latterly, Corbyn supporters) with Balls the husband, parent, amateur pianist, fanatical Norwich City supporter, karaoke enthusiast and human being.

One of the book’s dispiriting conclusions is that the functions of personality and professionalism in modern politics are diverging. Moderates and pragmatists end up cast as soulless, unprincipled automatons. Mavericks, extremists and charlatans – those who are unconstrained by consideration of what might actually work in government – are lauded for their characterful originality. That observation sits alongside a drier argument about the need to update and re-energise “third-way” politics. He urges governments to confront the systemic flaws in a globalised capitalist economy that have fed insurgencies of the nationalist right and Marxist left. Balls’s suggestion that well-run businesses and properly regulated markets should be seen as part of the economic solution, not the problem, is so unfashionable in Labour these days, it feels almost as incongruous as his dance moves.

But the point of Speaking Out is not to fit in. Democratic politics are governed by the contradictory duty to do unpopular things and the need to be popular. Political memoirs end up similarly caught between the reader’s appetite for unvarnished truth and the author’s self-censoring reflex. Balls does not entirely escape that conundrum, but he comes closer than many. Much of the dialogue, for example, supposedly recalled verbatim, seems sticky with retrospective varnish. Rather, it is Balls’s frustration at what might have been said but was not – partly because the words wouldn’t always flow, but more because modern politics can be so unforgiving of candour – that has the poignant ring of truth.


‘Speaking Out by Ed Balls review — lessons in life and politics’


The Labour party’s problem, I once heard Gordon Brown say, was not that the British people opposed increased spending on the welfare state. To the contrary, voters were more than ready to pay for a better National Health Service. What worried them was that a Labour government would push up taxes and borrowing and then proceed to waste the money.

The conversation with Labour’s then shadow chancellor took place in the run-up to the 1997 election. It came back to me when I read Ed Balls’s memoir. Writing of his party’s crushing defeat at the hands of David Cameron’s Conservatives in the 2015 election, Balls observes: “Whenever Labour talked about more public investment and slower deficit reduction, the public just heard more borrowing, more risk and higher taxes.”

Credibility is (almost) everything in politics. The three election victories notched up by Tony Blair and Brown were built on a simple, readily saleable proposition: progressive parties can be at once economically responsible and socially just.

There was no mystery to New Labour’s political success. By earning an aura of fiscal competence it won the public’s permission for a set of policies — higher public spending, a minimum wage, tax credits for the working poor among them — that would have otherwise been rejected.

As Brown’s economic adviser, Balls was at the heart of this transformation. In 2005 he became an MP and, when Blair departed, he joined Brown’s cabinet as minister for children, schools and families. The credibility, though, was draining away. In part this was the inevitable effect of the global crash. Balls may be right when he says that the financial meltdown had little to do with the government’s spending and borrowing policies, but the electorate needed convincing.

Ed Miliband, Brown’s successor after the 2010 election defeat, rushed off in the opposite direction. Having beaten both his brother David and Balls for the leadership, Miliband repudiated the lessons of New Labour and insisted on fighting the 2015 election from the left. The result was to hand the Conservatives their first majority since 1992. The year since has seen the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn lay firm claim to be Labour’s worst ever leader. Miliband runs him a close second.

Balls, who lost his own parliamentary seat in the carnage, has eschewed a traditional political memoir in favour of an account that mixes the personal and political. Instead of a chronology, he tells the story through a series of themes ranging from family to control and risks. If only I knew then what I know now is one of the constant threads. The structure makes for a jaunty read and humanises a politician — presumably the intention — who had a reputation as something of a bruiser.

There were times during the great Downing Street feud when it seemed Balls was more eager even than Brown himself to push Blair out of the door of Number 10. The adviser who wrote the phrase “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory” into one of Brown’s early speeches (he says he subsequently tried to delete it from the draft) wanted above all to be chancellor. Brown promised Balls the job several times but never gave it to him. The Blair-Brown power struggles are mostly left to one side in this account.

Instead, a smattering of self-deprecation, his fanatical support for Norwich City football club, a convincing account of his struggle with a speech impediment and the admission of the shock he felt at losing his seat, are there to remind us that politicians indeed share the emotions and foibles of normal folk. The 49-year-old Balls’s decision to try his luck on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in-between stints as a research fellow at Harvard is part of the same quest.

For all that, the book is disappointing. Though he glosses over some of the mistakes, Balls was a formidable politician. He gave intellectual substance to Brown’s instincts and worked hard to entrench a New Labour settlement that recognised the importance of the market and the need for social cohesion. Yes, the government was too relaxed about the activities of the City of London, but it was not alone; witness the complacency of Lord King, the former Bank of England governor.

The book’s missing ingredient is anything much resembling an explanation as to why parties of the centre-left have borne the brunt of the backlash against liberal capitalism in the wake of the financial crash. Corbyn may be sui generis in his determination to lock Labour out of government, but glance across Europe and socialists and social democrats are in trouble almost everywhere. The champions of capitalism on the centre-right have got off relatively lightly. Why? Balls laments the advance of populism and the elbowing aside of evidence by the sort of mendacious sloganeering that helped deliver victory for the Brexit campaign.

He admits that politicians should have been more attentive to the disruptive and destabilising effects of globalisation. And he says that sooner or later Labour will have to turn its mind again to marrying sensible economic management with fairer social outcomes. It seems the task, though, will fall to a future generation. That’s a pity. And I wonder whether Balls will long be content with life as a game show celebrity.

Posted September 10th, 2016 by Ed's team