Appearing on Strictly Come Dancing has done wonders for Ed Balls’s public image. Chris Bond ponders whether there’s an art to reinventing yourself.
When I interviewed Ed Balls a few years ago in Leeds he offered me a sage piece of cooking advice.
The secret to a consistently good soufflé, he said, was not to be intimidated and to “make sure your whites stiffen”.
I haven’t attempted to cook a soufflé since so I can’t vouch for its veracity, but perhaps next time our paths cross I should ask him for a few dancing tips following his exploits on Strictly Come Dancing.
His run on the BBC’s hugely popular Saturday night TV show came to an end at the weekend when he and his professional partner Katya Jones were knocked out in the dance-off.
Some people no doubt gave a sigh of relief, after all he was more Fred Flintstone than Fred Astaire, but there will be many who will miss their weekly fix of the former Labour MP camping it up.
For even in this year of seismic political shocks, Ed Balls being a star of Strictly Come Dancing – and dubbed “the people’s champion” – is one of the most unlikely stories to hit the headlines.
Let’s face it, when the former Shadow Chancellor was named among the contestants on this year’s show there were howls of derision from TV commentators and his old political foes who expected, and perhaps secretly hoped, that he would fall flat on his face.
And yet Balls has unashamedly stomped, minced and at times hurled himself (and sometimes his partner) around the Strictly dance floor with joyous abandon, releasing his “inner Beyonce” and entertaining millions of viewers in the process.
The crowning glory of all this was surely his Gangnam Style routine that had a cheering audience on their feet and rendered the judges speechless. Such has been his popularity that his dancing shenanigans even made front page news in both the broadsheets and the tabloids.
Few well-known figures have seen their public image undergo such a dramatic transformation as Balls has in the past few weeks. In May last year he suffered the humiliation of losing his Morley and Outwood seat to Conservative newcomer Andrea Jenkyns and went off to work at Harvard University.
It’s fair to say that if you asked most people before he started Strictly what they thought of him there wouldn’t have been an outpouring of love and warmth.
He’s not the first former MP to appear on the show yet he’s been by far and away the most popular. Politicians don’t tend to fare very well – in 2011 Edwina Currie was the first person to go out of the competition.
But there can be a thin line between laughing with someone and laughing at them. Balls knew he wasn’t the best dancer but was self-deprecating and worked hard and, as we all know, us Brits have a soft spot for the underdog.
Appearing on a prime-time TV can be an easy way to reignite your career or raise your profile. At the same time, though, it can backfire spectacularly as George Galloway discovered when he took part in Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother.
Other politicians have fared better. Appearing on the BBC’s satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You proved a fillip for former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg who showed the kind of wit and irreverence we rarely see from politicians these days.
Perhaps at the end of the day it comes down to how likeable you are. The public can usually sense when someone is being disingenuous and Balls was clearly enjoying himself and this proved to be infectious.
You never know, maybe George Osborne has been seen his old adversary’s popularity soar and is toying with the idea of following suit? Then again perhaps that would be a (quick) step too far.