by Dan Hodges
Just when did Ed Balls become Ed Cojones? What was the time, date and place we first set eyes on the dashing, marauding, Cordobes-clad conquistador?
There are few clues in his childhood. He was born in Norfolk. Very flat, Norfolk. He attended a private, all boys school, where he reportedly enjoyed the violin. Bit girly, the violin.
At Oxford, he studied PPE, and then went on to Harvard. All very Ivy League. Finally, he came home and joined the Financial Times. Not much by way of tits, sport and Freddie Starr’s hamster at the FT.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Ed Balls has the biography of a wimp. A number-crunching, classical music-playing, pretty boy from the sticks.
Now contrast with some of the headlines from the weekend. “Ed Miliband’s rottweiler Ed Balls”; “Ed balls loves to knee cap his opponents”; “Ed Balls; aggressive, passionate, smart”.
Where did this guy spring from? How did Don Diego Vega turn into Zorro?
Don Diego Vega, for the uninitiated, was the alter ego of Johnston McCulley’s masked Spanish crusader. Zorro was all swash and buckle; his mission “to avenge the helpless”, “aid the oppressed”, and, appropriately enough, “punish cruel politicians”.
But like many men of adventure, Zorro had to be attended by a bodyguard of lies. That bodyguard was Don Diego. The Don was, “unlike the other full-blooded youths of his times; though proud as befitting his class (and seemingly uncaring about the lower classes). He shuns action, rarely wearing his sword except for fashion, and is indifferent to romance with women”.
That’s the question. When and why did Ed Balls stop sporting his espada ancha for show, whip it out and begin carving a swathe through the ranks of the capitalist oppressors?
It certainly didn’t happen when he began working for Gordon Brown. Balls was the brains, not the brawn, of the Brownite operation. His role wasn’t to break kneecaps, but to build an economic strategy and massage egos. He was successful at it too, as his rides back from the Bilderberg group in Conrad Black’s private jet illustrated.
But Ed balls was no attack dog. The closest he came to a snappy soundbite was “post neoclassical endogenous growth theory”. Charlie Whelan was the hired gun; Ed the hired calculator.
When he first stepped front of house he was not even an attack poodle. His early broadcast appearances as an MP were poor; Parliamentary performances solid enough, but unspectacular. His tenure as education secretary was characterized by rows over sex education, the Baby P case and arguments with Alastair Darling over funding priorities and deficit reduction.
In the leadership election, Ball’s campaign imploded. The famous YouGov poll that showed Ed Miliband snatching the lead had Balls dead last on the first preferences of both party members and trade unionists. He was even forced to issue a statement admitting that he’d initially offered to step aside in favor of his wife.
Forget the hype. At the start of last September, Ed Balls wasn’t a bruiser, he was broken. Gordon Brown had gone over the cliff, and he’d taken his closest friend and confidante with him.
Then, miraculously, a caped figure appeared and began gingerly hauling itself up from the edge of the precipice.
First on the scene to offer a helping hand was Michael Gove. Whatever the Tory education secretary achieves in his political career, no service he offers his country will match the service he offered Ed Balls. For several long, hot weeks this summer, he acted as punch bag to one of the most brutal and merciless assaults in modern British politics. Not a day went by without Balls flourishing another leaked letter, forcing another departmental clarification, or securing another apology on top of a profuse apology on top of a groveling apology. During those days was the legend of Ed Cojones born.
It was cemented by Steve Richards and Tony Blair. As the broadcast of the former’s reconstruction of the Brown premiership coincided with publication of the latter’s biography of his own, people turned again to the pychodrama of the Blair/Brown years. Through this new lens Balls became redefined. He was no longer the economic advisor but the consigliere. People did not see a mere mathematician, but a political general. And as Brown’s enemies closed in they also saw courage and loyalty.
But there is one final narrative thread. Don Diego Vega chose to don his cape and his mask at precisely the point that the party reached out. Not for a leader, but for a hero. David Miliband was smooth, but managerial. Ed Miliband too much Zen, not enough labour. But we had Ed Cojones.
He had lost. But he’d had the courage to fight. He bore the scars. But he was still standing. He had drawn blood. But it was not the blood of a brother. He was of us, and for us.
That is the story of how we have our champion. But it poses a fresh question. Is the legend of Ed Cojones really good for Labour? And is it really all that good for Ed Balls?
There’s a popular view within the party that in the next few days we’ll see George Osborne staggering away from the dispatch box with a ragged “B” carved across his chest. Possibly. But Osborne is no Michael Gove. He’s a seasoned street fighter who knows every trick in the book, and one or two the book refused to publish. Predictions that Ed balls will swat him aside are premature.
There is also a broader strategic point. Poking populist holes in the Tory-led government’s economic programme will not be difficult for such an accomplished economist and pugilist. But that is only half the battle. The challenge for the opposition is not just to discredit the government’s proposition, but to start to build credibility for its own. The image of Ed Balls as kneecapper in chief does not of itself help him or the party to establish their economic bona fides. The crowd may cheer as he leaps from the chandelier and runs through another line of Tory toffs, but it doesn’t mean they’ll instinctively regard him as the best steward of the nations finances.
Yes, Ed Cojones has the charm (it now seems) and the verve and the vigour. But let’s step back for a moment and cast a second glance at Don Diego Vega. When was Ed Balls at his most effective? When he was knocking lumps out of the hapless Michael Gove? Or when he was burning the midnight oil in the shadow cabinet room, methodically constructing the economic policy that swept Labour to power in 1997? Have Balls’ finest moments come when he’s been out in front leading the charge? Or when he was behind the scenes, pulling the strings that guided Gordon Brown to Downing Street?
We love Ed Cojones flamboyance. Thrill to the swish of his blade. But the masked crusader must tread with care. If the mask slips, his true identity will be revealed. The secret exposed.
Some flourish in the spotlight. Others in the shadows. Time will tell if it is Ed Cojones or Don Diego Vega that is Ed Balls’ true alter ego.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.