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Will Ed Balls ever return to politics?

Former Labour minister remains one of the most popular political figures in the UK

Former Labour MP Ed Balls has tried out several roles since losing his Morley and Outwood seat at the 2015 general election, from competing in Strictly Come Dancing to a stint as chairman of Norwich City FC.

Party figures hoped he might stage a political comeback, bringing the “big beast factor” if he were to stand for Labour in the forthcoming Wakefield by-election. The seat is likely to be vacated soon by Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who was found guilty of a child sex offence, although a date has not yet been set.

Balls has since said he has “no intention” of putting himself forward, but not before a senior Labour source told Politico that there was a “real buzz” in the party about the prospect of him returning to the political frontline.

From politics to entertainment

Balls “owes his political career” to Gordon Brown, who when he was Labour shadow chancellor “talent-spotted” Balls when he was a young journalist working for the Financial Times in the 1990s, said the BBC

He first became a speechwriter for Brown, but by the time he was 30, he was “effectively second in command at the Treasury, despite being an unelected official”, helping to “mastermind” some of Brown’s “biggest policy coups” as chancellor. This included “handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England and the five economic tests that kept Britain out of the euro”, said the broadcaster. Together Balls and Brown reimagined Labour’s economic policy and “worked to forge the party’s ‘New Labour’ identity”, said Politics.co.uk.

In 2005, Balls was elected as the Labour MP for Normanton in Yorkshire, and in 2006 he was appointed to the government as economic secretary to the Treasury under Tony Blair. He then served as education secretary under Brown, a position he held until 2010 when Labour was voted out of office.

After holding his seat for a decade, he lost it in the 2015 general election, in what was dubbed Labour’s own “Portillo moment” by The Guardian, in reference to the dethroning of Tory cabinet minister and “big beast” Michael Portillo in 1997.

But Balls, who is married to Labour MP Yvette Cooper, has gone on to become something of a television favourite in the years since his defeat. He has starred in the hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, and in 2016 his Gangnam Style turn as a ballroom dancer was nominated for a Bafta for TV moment of the year.

He was also chairman of Norwich City FC from 2015 to 2018, published an autobiographical memoir Speaking Out and has appeared on several TV programmes, including his own documentary series Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls and Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls.

And back again?

Despite leaving politics seven years ago, Balls has remained popular with the public. According to YouGov, he was the second most popular political figure in the country during the first quarter of 2022, beaten only by Keir Starmer. A return to the green benches would “mark the return to politics of one of New Labour’s leading figures”, said The Telegraph.

Rumours of a return were first touted by Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times, who reported that friends of Balls said he “misses Westminster” and could “be persuaded to have another shot in the shadow Cabinet.”

Other senior Labour sources said Balls may indeed be “on manoeuvres”, with his former boss Brown particularly pushing for a Balls comeback, reported The Times’ Patrick Maguire. However, sources close to Keir Starmer dismissed the rumours as the “most improbable Easter comeback story since Jesus Christ”.

Other Balls allies said he is “unlikely to forgo his lucrative career in light entertainment for a tilt at an unwinnable seat”, continued Maguire.

Indeed, on Friday night, he tweeted that he appreciated the messages he had received about the Wakefield speculation, “but for removal of any doubt, no-one’s spoken to me about it and I’ve no intention of putting myself forward when the current MP finally resigns!”

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