August 30, 2010 11:00 pm

Hard-hitter struggling to escape macho past

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Last week Ed Balls poured scorn on the coalition’s view that “there is no alternative” to its agenda of public spending cuts. On Tuesday the shadow education secretary wants to challenge the idea that there is no real alternative to one of the clean-cut Miliband brothers as leader of the Labour party.

In his view the next election is probably at least four years away, by which point it might no longer be advantageous to Labour “to choose a leader who looks and sounds like – and agrees with – David Cameron and Nick Clegg”.

Mr Balls is in no danger of being seen as a Cameron clone, but he has a problem: what he prefers to call “an overhang”. It is the fact that he has been intractably linked to his old mentor, Gordon Brown, ever since he left the Financial Times in 1994 to work for the then shadow chancellor.

His association with Mr Brown’s macho style of machine politics has left a stain which has so far proved indelible, even though he insists in an interview with the FT: “I’m absolutely not a black arts politician.”

He is desperate to move on. “I spoke to him once in August,” Mr Balls says of the former prime minister. Is he in good health? “I think so.” Does the former prime minister agree with his robust critique of the coalition’s economic policy? “I don’t know actually,” he replies.

“Look, the only way to deal with that is through time and for me to be who I am,” he says. Then in a frank admission that he may not become Labour leader on September 25, he adds: “I don’t know if there will be enough time for me in this contest.”

If Mr Balls does not emerge victorious – and, with only one union endorsement and just 37 MPs behind his campaign, it would be a surprise if he did – the new Labour leader will grapple with what to do with one of the party’s most potent opposition politicians.

Not only has the 43-year-old Mr Balls pinned down Michael Gove, education secretary, he has also provided Labour’s most punchy critique of the coalition’s plan to cut spending, saying it was undermining the economy’s foundations when a “hurricane” was brewing on the other side of the Atlantic.

David Miliband’s supporters say they cannot see Mr Balls being made shadow chancellor, should their man win. They fear he might use the Treasury role as a chance to build an alternative power base, replicating the old Blair-Brown feud.

But in his interview and public utterances Mr Balls is constructive about David Miliband, even if he says he does not share the shadow foreign secretary’s enthusiasm for private involvement in the public services.

Mr Balls’ endorsement of either Miliband brother could help swing momentum their way, but he refuses to say whether he might urge his supporters to put the elder Miliband as their second choice on the ballot paper.

He is noticeably less positive about Ed Miliband, particularly his flagship policy of a living wage. Mr Balls claims that as education secretary he introduced the living wage at his department, while Ed Miliband did not do the same at his energy department.

“I actually did it and when it came to the crunch in government he didn’t, and that’s a difference,” Mr Balls says. Ed Miliband’s team insists he fought hard to get the idea into the Labour manifesto, but the strains between the two men are obvious.

Mr Balls says he has been frustrated by the often woolly nature of the Labour leadership debate. “People talk about values as if somehow this is distinctive,” he says.

Does he expect to get the shadow chancellorship? On this he chooses his words carefully, saying only that whoever wins should pick the best people for the jobs in shadow cabinet.

Mr Balls says he knew David Miliband long before he knew Tony Blair: “We go back a long way.” But he hurriedly elaborates: “This is about the future, and I have been a bit worried in the past few days that some of the other candidates have been looking backwards too much.”

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