‘What is a woman? In my house, it’s the person who doesn’t cook’
He also does a bit of presenting on Good Morning Britain and has produced several documentaries for the BBC, one about Donald Trump and another about the social care crisis – inspired by his experiences with his 83-year-old mother, who lives in a house of care.
“She has now suffered from dementia for more than 15 years,” he says. “A year ago they had a bad outbreak of Covid at home and a lot of people died. My mother tested positive but had no symptoms. I think she is healthier now than when she went home three and a half years ago.
Her father, a zoologist, caught the foodie bug during the pandemic and, Balls says, started “cooking for the first time. And what has finally happened in the last few months is that my mother can come out of the house to have lunch with him, rather than him going to the house. It has a sense of normalcy and familiarity, which you don’t get if you walk into a care home and have to wear PPE and sit like you don’t belong.
He is in talks to do more programs with the BBC. When I ask him if he will ever return to politics, he tells me his answer is “probably not. There is a new generation of parliamentarians in both parties, and perhaps they should be allowed to continue. And in my own way, with my films about welfare, I can show people things that I couldn’t show if I was still in Parliament. So maybe I’ve found a way to make a contribution that doesn’t require you to be elected.
Punch and Judy Policy
Our plates are replaced by coffees and teas. He says the policy has always been confrontational, but he thinks ‘it became more aggressive once David Cameron became Leader of the Opposition’.
Balls don’t hold up with this style. “I don’t think our politics should be mean and divisive. I think it’s good to smile and get along sometimes. I think when David Cameron said he was defending the end of Punch and Judy politics, I thought “that’s good”. And then he was probably more Punch and Judy in his politics than any prime minister I’ve seen up close, and I thought that was a shame. Boris Johnson, he believes, has followed this tradition.
But what about this macho culture under Blair and Brown? “I think in the period leading up to 1997, before we entered government, it was quite young and masculine. But that changed a lot once we were there. There were certainly no gatherings of drunks in the state rooms in his day. “Back when I worked in Downing Street there was rather more social distancing than partying. But that was the nature of the Blair-Brown relationship.
“I think most people who have worked in politics find the partygate stuff pretty incomprehensible. In politics, you have to spend all your time asking yourself: is the way we behave something that we could explain and justify if seen by the outside world? And every once in a while, people in their personal lives blow up, they behave recklessly. But normally systems don’t behave recklessly. The systems are there to prevent this from happening.
Balls thinks the Treasury and the Bank of England did a “brilliant” job at the start of the pandemic. “Economic history is good history,” he says. He doesn’t feel the need to paint conservatives as bad guys — he can give compliments where they’re due and thinks consensus, by and large, is a good thing, and there should be more of it.
“Politics has changed in that with social media you can attack the other side and build enthusiasm among your base by using more aggressive and divisive language. The kind of politics that says the other camp is not only wrong but wrong, that their motivations are low. I personally think it’s quite alienating to a lot of people who watch Prime Minister’s Questions.
He says Sir Keir Starmer is at his best “when he speaks to the country”, rather than the party. Could Labor win the next election? “It’s a huge task for Labor to win because of the scale of the loss in 2019, and particularly because of what happened in Scotland. So I think it’s tough. But it’s ‘is possible.
Balls is an engaging company and lights up when we’re not talking politics. He likes the fact that in this new life he can spend more time with his children and can be more open-minded and less cynical.
But he still believes that politics is the most important job in the world. “I think the only time I felt really gloomy in the last few weeks was when Tony Blair did an interview where he was talking about his family, and he said he wouldn’t want his kids coming in. Politics.” The big blue eyes look really dismayed. “I thought, ‘Tony, you can’t say that’. He got into politics because he believed he could change the world and he did some very important things. In every generation, society’s only job is to persuade the next generation that politics is a worthy cause, and that you should go out there and do it. Because if you don’t…”
He takes a sip of his coffee. “Societies get the politicians they deserve. If you have a society where only oligarchs are elected, or only men, or the rich, or election is a path to self-glorification, well that’s where democracies break down. It may be that when you’ve seen the politics up close and how brutal they are, you decide this isn’t for you. But to say you don’t want your kids doing it because it’s a bad thing to do these days is really dangerous.
The sausages may have gone cold, but the same can’t be said for Ed Balls passion.
Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food by Ed Balls is released in paperback March 17. To pre-order from Telegraph Books for £8.99 call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk