In Depth

Newsnight skewers Ed Balls over ‘Bill Somebody’ blunder

Balls forgets name of ‘Labour-friendly business leader’. But what’s Newsnight up to, asks Polly Toynbee

The Mole

Ed Balls’s attempt to prove that Labour remains business-friendly - despite the Boots vs Miliband bust-up - backfired spectacularly last night when he appeared on BBC Newsnight and forgot the name of a leading businessman who supports Labour. 

And Newsnight’s apparent glee at the shadow chancellor's discomfort led to Polly Toynbee of The Guardian asking angrily why the BBC’s current affairs programme was “going out of its way” to give Labour a hard time.

Balls stumbled when he was being questioned by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis about the fears - among business leaders - that a Labour government would be “anti-business”. The issue blew up at the weekend when Boots chief Stefano Pessina said a Labour government would be a “catastrophe” for Britain and Ed Miliband shot back that he didn’t like being lectured to by a man whose company was not paying its fair share of taxes in the UK and who personally lived in tax exile in Monaco.

In an effort to kick all that into the long grass, Balls told Maitlis he was actually very chummy with businessmen: indeed, he had just had dinner with a leading businessman – and a Labour supporter at that - before arriving at the studio.

“Who?” Maitlis asked.

Balls: “Bill… the former chief executive of EDS who I was just talking to before coming on…”

Maitlis: “What is his name?”

Balls: “To be honest, his surname has just gone from my head which is a bit annoying at this time of night…” 

Maitlis: “Okay, so we have got Bill Somebody. Is there anyone else?”

Just to rub it in, Newsnight then tweeted a link to the ‘Bill Somebody’ clip – which didn't help improve Polly Toynbee's mood.

Before Balls made his blunder, Newsnight had run an interview by political editor Allegra Stratton with Simon Woodroffe, the Yo! Sushi restaurant chain founder who supported Labour in the Blair-Brown era, but who suggested he was “scared” by Ed Miliband’s anti-business rhetoric. 

“You know it scares me,” said Woodroffe. “What I worry about with Ed Miliband is that he is appealing to the popular by saying ‘look at these fat cats making lots of money, it should be for the workers’.

“Actually, I think the fat cats, generally, sometimes it annoys me, but they pay their taxes, you know.”

It was the second Allegra Stratton Newsnight package in five days to give Labour a headache – shadow health secretary Andy Burnham underwent a ‘car crash’ interview with Stratton last Thursday -  and it was getting too much for Toynbee. 

The veteran Guardian columnist, once a leading figure in the SDP but now one of Miliband’s loudest cheer-leaders in the media, tweeted: “BBC Newsnight going on Tory press agenda again.”

And: “Allegra Stratton doing what she loves best, attacking the Labour Party again. Why are BBC Newsnight going out of their way to attack Labour?”

Toynbee has a point: another take on the issue might well have been a Newsnight investigation into whether Miliband has the public on his side - as the Mole suggested yesterday - in tackling tax avoidance head-on.

Toynbee is – one assumes – particularly incensed because both Stratton and the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, are ex-Guardian colleagues. Katz made the most of Balls’s embarrassment last night, adding to the ‘official’ BBC tweets with one of his own: “Ed Balls says ‘Bill’, former CEO of EDF backs Labour...but his surname has slipped his mind.”

As for Balls, still racking his brains after his grilling by Maitlis, he finally remembered Bill’s name and tweeted the following: “I know, I know. Bill Thomas, our Small Business Taskforce Chair, will never forgive me. It's an age thing!”

We’ve all been there, of course, but we’re not all shadow chancellor. As Norman Smith, the BBC’s assistant political editor told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: “It’s hard to shore up your credentials on the economy if you have business people coming out openly criticising you and you forget the name of a prominent businessman who is meant to be heading up your policies on small business.”

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