by Paul Goodman
It was a flaming May morning outside and more of the flaming Finance Bill inside. We were in committee. The clause concerned what are misleadingly labelled "zero-carbon homes". The Conservative team was: Theresa Villiers (intelligent, numerate, long hair); Mark Hoban (intelligent, numerate, short hair, spectacles); David Gauke (intelligent, numerate, short hair, no spectacles); Mark Francois (intelligent, numerate, very short hair, no spectacles, Napoleonic), and myself. Actually, Gauke didn't join the team formally until the next year, but he's so much part of the Tory Treasury furniture that I'm counting him in.
Stephen Timms, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had said on TV that there were currently a couple of dozen zero carbon homes, and had referred to a site at Gallions Park in his constituency. We knew that there were no homes – at least, not at Gallions Park. There wasn't even planning permission, as far as we were aware. So if none had been built there, had any been built anywhere? We'd try to find out. And knock Timms around a bit for misleading the viewers. Does all this sound small-minded? Well, that's the Finance Bill for you. I led on the clause. But the Minister answering wasn't Timms: it was Ed Balls.
Needless to say, I made a song and dance about the mystery of the missing zero-carbon homes. When others had finished their turn, Balls rose from his place to reply. He studiously avoided the point. Villiers intervened on him to press it. Balls carried on avoiding it. I intervened, pressing it again. Balls carried on avoiding it. After a while, I intervened, pressing it again. Balls, with a sigh of exasperation, said that I was making "exactly the same point that [he] made in [his] speech. Given that it is the same, I will answer it now. The London Development Agency has earmaked the site for the development of a zero -"
At this point, Hansard records: "[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]." Balls then said: "Ah? The agency has earmarked the site for the development of a zero carbon house – [Hon. Members: "A house?"] Sorry, homes." A few moments later, he said: "there are few or no zero-carbon homes today". There was a small explosion to my right. Mark Francois had shot to his feet. It was as though Bonaparte had been goosed. He began to press Balls on the Gallions Park application. Balls ploughed on. I intervened again, and asked whether there were a couple of dozen zero-carbon homes, or few, or none. Balls said that "there may well be none"…
And so, as Tennyson put it, "all day long the noise of battle rolled". I apologise to readers for this interminable shaggy dog story. I apologise for taxpayers for exhausting Parliamentary time in this way. I apologise to Balls – no hang on, I don't, and not to taxpayers either, come to think of it. A job of the Opposition is to ask questions. And if the subject is zero carbon homes, the Minister should know how many there are – or pause for a moment, say that he's waiting for "inspiration", and when he's passed a note with the answer from the civil service box, declare that "inspiration has now arrived."
This is what an old pro like John Healey would have done, adding that he hadn't seen what Timms said, so he couldn't comment on it, and concluding with a few mournful words about the Opposition's sad lack of support for the noble venture of zero carbon homes. Instead, Balls tried first to bluff and then fight his way out of the problem. His reward was to have to repeat the debate again at Report Stage, at which we tabled an amendment in order to reheat the issue. By then, he'd learnt his lesson and was all sweetness and light, insofar as he's capable of being either of those things.
To all of which you may well reply: so what? After all, who gained in the long run? For this paltry incident was mere happenstance, a passing blip on Balls's radar, as he flew onwards and upwards towards the sun – and the post of Education Secretary – while I stumbled backwards and downwards, or out of the Commons at any rate: "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight/And burned is Apollo's laurel bough". But be that as it may, I spent long enough shadowing Balls, even though it was only for a few scarce months, to reach a few conclusions that may be useful.
No-one knows what motivates others. But we just can't help guessing. Some politicians seem to be motivated by public service. Many appear to be driven by vanity. For others, the driving force looks like attachment to a cause. For most, it's probably all of these at once. I decided early on that Balls wasn't primarily a class warrior, as is a depressingly large number of Labour MPs. Nor is he simply a disloyal plotter: he could have been cast, in one of those YouTube "Downfall" parodies of Brown's Number Ten, as a dogged, devoted staff officer. And he wasn't merely a bully, though he's clearly overdosed on testosterone.
Indeed, he was quite fun, in his brash way. I may of course be wrong, but he seemed to develop a weird habit of winking at me, with a slight roll of his eyes, when Timms was answering Commons questions. As I say, perhaps I'm mistaken but, at any rate, the Chief Secretary was moved shortly after this facial tic appeared. Talking of idiosyncrasies, there was little sign of the famous stammer. In his early days, Balls tended, when questioned, to stop short, open his mouth, um and er a bit, and then push on, but – being a class act – he soon raised his game.
No, the key to Balls is that he's one of those people who just always knows better than anybody else. This, rolled together with the brains and, yes, the balls qualifies him perfectly for the upper reaches of the Labour Party. The first are clearly hereditary: his father's a professor, and Balls did the whole Oxford-and-Harvard bit, via a private school – classic Fabian stuff. The second are, if not exactly the stuff of heredity, then at least that of temperament. All that playing football and cooking meals and playing drums suggests irritatingly high levels of energy.
I'm just about old enough to remember the vanished generation of Labour politicians who exuded a sense of natural superiority – Richard Crossman, Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey (in his way). Balls is straight out of this tradition, and it's a bit as though someone had crossed Crosland's brain with Healey's aggression, and thrown in a bit of Harold Wilson's cunning for keeps. This helps to explains why, at Education, he rolled back the Academies experiment – although his civil servants apparently found him eclectic and unpredictable.
The crucial question for the Opposition at the last election was: what spending will you cut? At the next election, it will be: which taxes will you raise? Balls's answer to the question will show whether he expects to be Labour's next Chancellor or its next leader. If it's the former, he'll go in to the election with a plan to spend a little bit more money on something – possibly training – with the requisite money raised from something else – probably the banks. At any rate, the target in these circumstances will be an unpopular one, like the utiltities targetted by Brown with a windfall tax before 1997 (when Balls was his main adviser).
This would pave the way for a classic Balls "dividing line" challenge: will "the Tories" match our plan to "invest in our young people"? But closing down the tax-and-spending gap with the Government as far as possible will make sense if Balls wants to be Chancellor: he was there, after all, when Brown promised to match Conservative spending plans post-1997. As I wrote last week, he seems to be leaving this option open by moving towards Miliband's position on deficit reduction and the 50p rate – while declaring all the while that what says now isn't inconsistent with what he said in his Bloomberg speech (which it is).
But if Balls wants to be Labour's next leader – for example, he may come to believe, for reasons we can't see now, that the next election's lost for Miliband – then expect to see him pushing for still higher spending, and higher taxes, higher borrowing. He ran an effective leadership campaign, coming third. He's in a position to make a big pitch to Labour's left, if he wants to. He's also got good lines of communication to Labour's immigration-worried northern MPs, and has always been cautiously hostile to the Euro. His startling, intense gaze has been remarked on. It's the look of someone who's moved on from zero carbon homes to higher things.