“Who would have thought you and I would be doing this!” says the former shadow Chancellor. Almost all of our previous encounters, which were usually not face-to-face, had been live on a news and current affairs programme: me verbally dissecting the minutiae of Labour Party economic policy; him vigorously attacking any perceived slight. Now, thanks to his eye-popping run on Strictly Come Dancing, we’ve gone from “Can you pass a law?” to “Can you paso doble?”
One of his sons had opened the family front door to me: through the back in the kitchen, Ed and his wife, the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, were brewing coffee. It was here – between the washing machine and the ironing board – that he practised his last dance: a rumba that the nation never got to see after he was booted off Strictly. “We were going to do a rumba to Shirley Bassey’s This Is My Life – it’s probably best left to the imagination!” he tweeted. Instead, we have a unique interpretation of Gangnam Style, a blazing piano and Great Balls of Fire by which to remember the unlikely star of Strictly 2016.
Only once before had I actually met Ed Balls and he was precisely the kind of friendly, smiley person he didn’t appear to be as a politician on-air. It was at an edition of Radio 4’s Any Questions and I remarked in my introduction how he must have been teased at school about his surname. Quick as a flash he butted in to say it hadn’t been easy for him, but it was much worse for his sister, Ophelia. It got a big laugh. Now, thanks to Strictly, he has been making everyone laugh for the past three months. Changed days. When he was just a politician, members of the public would talk to him in the street, “but you just never knew which way it was going to go”. A week after he lost his seat in the 2015 general election, on one of his first forays outdoors, he was with one of his sons when a man approached him, his face contorted with anger, pointing and snarling: “You’re unemployed. Haaaaaaaaa!” And now everyone’s nice to you? “At the moment they’re nice to me.”
As for what he’s learnt about himself: “I never, ever knew I was so camp. I’ve discovered a massively more inner-camp than I ever thought I had. What you realise is that Peter Kay is very camp and, actually, I quite like being camp. Doing the paso doble I tried not to be camp because Katya said, ‘You can’t be a camp matador, you’ve got to be as manly as you can.’ I did the most manly paso doble I could. Afterwards the producer said it was the most camp paso doble they’d ever seen in the history of Strictly.”
Does Ed think he’s sexy? There is a pause and a little staring out of the window. “Um, I think there’s a… No. I think it might be for a woman of a certain age. Men who are relaxed in who they are and happy to be fun and camp might be attractive. But I think that’s almost because they’re not trying to be sexy. If I tried in any way to be sexy, I am absolutely sure that it would be very, very not sexy.” Me: “So this is effortless sexiness we’re seeing? Think how sexy you’d be if you tried.” Ed: “I have tried and it’s very, very, very not sexy. It so doesn’t work. You learn to understand people’s reaction and their laughter. Any time I try to do sexy, they just laugh. And I’ve come to understand that, appreciate it and even actually quite like it. But it’s not sexy.”
He’s decided to do the Strictly live tour in the new year… but then what? The jungle? “No. This is the only reality TV I’ll do. Absolutely. I think if you’re going to do it you might as well do the globally biggest and best one, and I’m scared of rats, so that’s out anyway. I said no to that last year. This is a massive one-off reality TV immersion.” He’d “love to do a couple of hours of Classic FM”, but he doesn’t want to make long-term decisions right now.
“The thing about being a cabinet minister is it’s really difficult, but it really matters. Nothing I’ve done since has ever mattered as much and been as hard. So I miss that sense of purpose and that kind of difficulty and responsibility. I’d like to do something in my life that was as responsible again, but I’m not sure what that means.” I feel a little sorry for him and suggest that, with his political background and his new popularity, he could host a political talk show, like Robert Peston or Andrew Marr. “I think that’s a seriously learnt skill, which I’m not sure would be very easy to pick up quickly. It’s not something that happens in British journalism. People would find it hard to see me as objective.”
I’m not so sure. We’ve got Marr and Peston. Wouldn’t many people love to wake up on Sunday morning to Balls?
Strictly Come Dancing: The Final airs on Saturday 17 December at 6.40pm on BBC1