Sketch: Balls treads on Ed's toes

Ed Balls - more than just a man dealing with numbers
Ed Balls - more than just a man dealing with numbers
Alex Stevenson By

Ed Miliband might want to take the opportunity of dipping his toes in the English Channel this week if he gets the chance. They will be feeling sore after half an hour of Ed Balls treading on them this lunchtime.

It is much easier to imagine a supremely smug Ed Balls waving from the steps of No 10 than the man who sat clip-clapping him from the sidelines.

Ed Miliband will have his big day tomorrow - but until then it is the shadow chancellor's address to this Labour conference which delegates in Brighton will be talking about most.

Balls has confessed he suffers from a terrible stutter in the 12 months since his last appearance on the Labour conference stage. He stumbled once or twice as he read from the hard copy perched on the lectern in front of him, but it never threatened to become embarrassing.


Instead he presented himself as a chancellor in the making with Treasury tentacles across the whole of Whitehall, in a speech which deliberately expanded well beyond his brief of deficit reduction and austerity.

Balls got firm approval from the Labour faithful in Brighton when talking about money issues like increasing the bank levy or complaining about austerity.

He was firm on the mansion tax, too, making very clear it would happen - an improvement on Miliband's wavering, watered-down pledge it would probably happen back in April.

The best responses came when he strayed away from his numbers brief to more emotive policy areas.

His promise to repeal the coalition's NHS reforms (already made by Andy Burnham, but that didn't matter) prompted some high-pitched yelps of excitement from some over-excited audience members.

His promise to withhold funding for free schools in areas where there is already an excess of school places and a warning there will be no "no blank cheque" for HS2 from Labour (both tried and tested Labour lines) were equally popular. Labour party members were squirming in their seats with excitement at the prospect.

I put it to you, readers, that this was a man presenting himself as a future leader. Either that or as the kind of future chancellor who treads on the leader's toes at every opportunity.

If this isn't a pleasant idea to you, you might point out the agonising moment when Balls slavishly declared Miliband to be "my friend, our leader, Britain's next prime minister".

Miliband looked delighted at this, but knows deep down it is all part of the choreography. His look of limited approval suggested he was thinking: This is what the Queen feels like, all the time.

Balls was getting into the spirit of things. He rolled out the old "I can announce today" cliché more than once. Never was it more overused in a conference speech than by his old boss, Gordon Brown. The lesson has not been learned.

That did not stop the Labour delegates lapping it up like George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother.

They loved his list of marvellous things a Labour government would do so much they began clapping when he was only halfway through.

This is every politician's dream and Balls exploited it mercilessly, ploughing on to secure a finish far superior to Nick Clegg's effort in Glasgow last week.

After wandering over to shake Miliband's hand he returned to the lectern, not to add a postscript but to dump his script. He stood to one side, basking in the adoration.

And then, in the blink of an eye, there came the most cringeworthy thumbs-up: a Wallace-style both-hands-at-once effort in which the shadow chancellor, perhaps being fed up of being cast as Gromit, momentarily looked more like Miliband than he ever has before.

Emulating his leader when it comes to faintly ridiculous plasticine figures is one thing - doing so on this very grand party conference stage is quite another.

Miliband's applause was slow and languorous during much of the speech. But he raised his arms up to his head, extending his hands away from his body for maximum impact, when Balls moved away from national policy issues and returned to his "sums" point.

It was a wasted gesture. Balls, rapt in the glare of the spotlight, didn't even come close to noticing.

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