Ed Balls, who had come third in that year’s leadership contest, was at a karaoke microphone belting out the Killers’ Mr Brightside. While his rivals wore grave expressions, Balls was seeing the funny side, mocking himself and getting ready to dust himself down and start all over again. For his most loyal supporters, it was a typical display: part self-deprecation, part showing off, and all accompanied by an easy familiarity with popular culture.
It’s fair to say that was not the way most people saw Ed Balls. Once known as more of a spod than a SpAd – he was famously said to have inserted the phrase “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory” into a Gordon Brown speech – he then became notorious as Brown’s enforcer, caricatured as both a boffin and a bruiser. As Ed Miliband’s shadow chancellor, he was the regular butt of jibes from David Cameron and George Osborne, who sought to make him the face of supposed Labour profligacy. When he lost his Morley and Outwood seat in 2015, it became the defining image of Labour’s 2015 defeat. In all the political obituaries that were written back then, few described Balls as popular – and no one called him a national treasure.
And yet when Balls was finally ejected from the BBC’s wildly popular Strictly Come Dancing last weekend, the wave of affection was unmistakable. In the previous 10 weeks, he had steadily built up what felt like a major public following. On social media, the love overflowed. In the street, where once, if he was recognised at all, it might be by someone who, unprovoked, told him to fuck off, now strangers would call out to say he was “smashing it on Strictly”. BBC executives spotted a trend: whenever Balls was about to dance, the ratings spiked.
Week after week, the judges put him at the bottom of the leaderboard. But week after week he stayed in. The voters had glimpsed the Ed Balls of that Manchester bar in 2010 – and they loved him.
All this must surely mean he’s gutted to be out. On the contrary, he says now, catching his breath between an appearance on ITV’s Loose Women and taping the Strictly Christmas special. “I’m not disappointed at all. I’ve had a fabulous time. Feels like a victory, not a defeat.” Which might sound like a politician’s spin until he tells you that, in the seconds before Tess Daly revealed who was going to be in last week’s decisive dance-off, he confided to a producer that he was more worried about scraping through than staying in. “I think by the time I got to last Saturday, I knew it was time to go.”
But why? He had surpassed all expectations, even making it to the all-important Blackpool stage. The pantomime-villain-cum-judge Craig Revel Horwood had declared him to be “improving”. Plenty believed Balls would make it to the final, even perhaps – in this year of Brexit, Trump and Leicester City – win the whole thing. But not him. “I knew that as the programme goes on, it becomes more about who’s good. And I wasn’t as good as the others. I felt that [had I stayed in] the next week would have had lots of people saying, ‘It’s not fair, it’s not on’. As Len Goodman has said since, the British people like an underdog, but there’s also a sort of sense of fair play.”
And unlike those other electoral results of 2016, Balls did see this one coming. “Judge Rinder and I were talking about the algorithm and the way things work,” he says, simultaneously straight-faced and aware of the comic absurdity. “Maybe we’re both a bit nerdy like that. Judge Rinder had been sitting there with his calculator working it out in the wardrobe room between the two shows on Saturday night.” He goes on to explain that, because “you’re balancing 50% public vote and 50% the judges”, once only a handful of contestants are left, a tipping point is reached where even coming first in the public vote might not be enough to save you from the dreaded dance-off. (Not for nothing was Balls reputed to be one of the finest economists of his generation.)
But he has more to say on the numbers. “The thing that is really frustrating about this show for people who follow politics, people who understand politics, is that we all need data. We need polls, we need exit polls, we need results. We need to know turnout. We need to know past results, and the problem with Strictly is that, although they’re very clear about the method, and they’re very clear about the independent verification, they don’t give us any data at all. So none of us ever know. We never knew whether we were just scraping through in week three, or totally storming it.”
He was like that throughout his Strictly journey, approaching the competition with an eye on political strategy. He learned quickly that it was crucial not to be bland, not to be stranded in the middle between those who are terrific and those who are awful. But nor did he want to be another John Sergeant or Ann Widdecombe. He really wanted to learn to dance and to become better. Nothing pleased him more than when the judges praised his “dance content”.
As the weeks went by, he realised that people – perhaps millions of people – were beginning to rely on him for a little bit of cheer to relieve the gloom. Never more so than in the week of Donald Trump’s election.
As it happens, I watched him and his professional partner, Katya Jones, in the rehearsal room that week. They were practising a salsa to Gangnam Style. The BBC cameraman had already seen it and predicted, rightly as it turned out, that “this is going to tear the roof off”. Sure enough, that moment when Ed appeared to ride Katya – “the pony” – made me, and everyone who saw it, gasp in a rare combination of delight and horror. It has been viewed 3.5m times on Facebook alone.
But going into it was not easy. First, the Trump election had brought everyone down. “How do you do this emotionally when you sort of feel something so terrible has happened?” Then he saw the Twitter voices sobbing that all they had to look forward to was Ed on Strictly. That added to the pressure. “I certainly felt a responsibility not to give people another disappointment or setback at the end of the week where there’d been a massive disappointment and setback.” The result was, he says, a more restrained performance, at least at the start, than he’d planned. He just didn’t want anything to go wrong.
This brings us to the dignity issue. Plenty of people felt that a man who had once sought to be the nation’s chancellor should not be cavorting around doing a paso doble on primetime TV. He includes Gordon Brown in that list, but quickly adds that Brown soon came around – texting Balls each Saturday evening to give him his own assessment of his performance. After Balls descended from the roof of the Winter Gardens playing a flaming piano, the former PM texted to say, “I will never see Blackpool in the same light again.”
Brown comes up several times in our conversation, including in a context few would have expected. I had asked Balls about Jones, a phenomenal dancer widely praised for playing to Ed’s strengths and unlocking his comic potential. They had to work together with great intensity, in the studio for 45 hours a week. To my surprise, he compares his working relationship with Katya with his equally demanding former boss.
“I was older, but I was the junior partner with Katya. With Gordon I was younger, but I was also the junior partner. But actually I always felt with Gordon that I should challenge him and say when I didn’t like things or when I disagreed. I did the same with her, and she with me. Actually what you realise is that, in both cases, the strength of the underlying relationship and the mutual respect is what allows you, sometimes, in the privacy of [working together, just] the two of you, to say ‘You’re getting this wrong, that’s ridiculous,’ or ‘That’s not going to work,’ or ‘Why can’t you support me more?’ The same way it happened between Gordon and me.”
The big shift came, he says, when he realised that performing on a show like Strictly meant playing a character. In the first week, he admits, he was stiff and stilted, because he was still being himself. But once he became the banjo-playing hick for his Charleston, or the yellow-suited Mask, or one half of Laurel and Hardy, he was liberated. He says he also focused only on the people in the studio audience, never thinking of the 11 million watching at home. If he had, he says, it would have been overwhelming.
Above all, the confidence came from a deep but unexpected source. In his memoir, Speaking Out, Balls explains that he did not realise he had a stammer – an “interiorised” one – until he was 38. Facing up to that and then talking about it in public was, he believes, a turning point. “Being comfortable in yourself – including saying, ‘I’ve got a stammer, that’s who I am’ – once you’ve done that, nothing else seems quite as hard in the future.” Even dancing a cha-cha-cha on live TV.
Indeed, Balls goes further, saying he believes he would never have gone on Strictly had he not had the stammer and faced up to it. It has enabled him to take risks, and to believe “this is who I am and it’s OK”. Now when he speaks to stammering children, as he does often, he tells them not to aim to eradicate their stammer, because, “well, one, it’s never going to go, but two, the strength they get out of dealing with it, and therefore being able to be themselves, will make them better people. And that’s why I’m better for having a stammer.”
Now that he’s out, he has more time on his hands. What’s next? He’s doing the Strictly Live Tour next year, which will mean a return to the Leeds venue where he learned he lost his seat in 2015. He sees some kind of poetic karma in that. He will miss the Manchester leg because he’s flying to Arizona to give a speech on the world economy. Not many Strictly contestants can say that.
It’s a strange kind of balancing act – light entertainment star and heavyweight politician. He certainly hasn’t stopped thinking of Labour and its current predicament. “You don’t succeed by being supported by cheering rallies of paid-up members,” he says pointedly. “The thing that’s worrying at the moment is not just our poll and trust ratings, but actually on some of the big policy prescriptions, we’re out of touch. The British people want the security of the Nato alliance. They don’t think that getting rid of our nuclear weapons would make us safer. They don’t think that free movement and immigration is an unalloyed success. When they hear our senior spokespeople saying ‘immigration is good for you and you should just accept it’ – that may make sense in Islington or Hackney, but it makes no sense at all where elections are won or lost around the country.”
He may well now be the most popular Labour figure in Britain. In 10 short weeks, he has acquired a commodity that is denied most politicians: more than simple popularity, he is now seen as a human being. No longer is he viewed through what he calls the “thick lens” that stands between almost every politician and the public, one that warps and distorts them all. That could be a priceless asset.
Does that mean there’s a way back for him? He says it would be “foolish” if he thought, “Oh, I’ve done well on a reality TV programme, let me go and be a reality TV politician.” The two disciplines are very different. To succeed on reality TV, he learned that, “You’ve got to shock. You’ve got to have some drama,” even go a bit “wild”. In politics, you also have to take risks, but you have to have “thought it through, and it’s serious, and you need to build consensus. You can’t just surprise. The world does not want a reality TV president,” he says (even though it’s about to get one).
Tellingly, he rules nothing out, even my half-serious suggestion that if there was ever a vacancy for the London mayoralty, he could run and win. And there’s a reason for that.
When his book was launched in September, Balls told guests that no matter how much he was enjoying Strictly, what he missed was the sense of “purpose” that politics provided. He sticks by that now. I ask if even a wet Tuesday in February as education secretary was more thrilling than a spectacular night on Strictly. “Oh massively, oh definitely. Incomparably so.” The responsibility, the ability to make a difference in people’s lives – “It’s just in a different realm.”
“The thing is, though, I’m quite reconciled with that. I may never ever have that degree of responsibility and purpose again. And I’m quite happy with the idea that I might spend the next five years doing some [teaching at] King’s [College, London] and at Harvard, and some Norwich City [where he is chairman] and some television maybe. But I think I’d be disappointed if I didn’t do something that felt like it was public service … I’d love to have a chance to do that kind of thing again.”
You can read the original interview on the Guardian website here.