Throwing crazy shapes has turned the former shadow chancellor into Britain’s favourite politician, says Aidan Smith
Now we know why Zoolander, one of the funniest films of recent years, was so rotten second time around. The sequel to the movie about a heroically stupid male model simply missed its moment, and that moment was Ed Balls dancing the tango.
Derek Zoolander operated with four poses which he called Magnum, Ferrari, Le Tigre and Blue Steel. He believed them to be different from each other, brilliantly individual creations, but semi-tragically they were the same dumb pout. He needed a new look but would never have thought – none of us did – that he’d find it in the chubby, hesitantly-smiling features of Britain’s former shadow chancellor of the exchequer.
Balls was tutored in the art of pouting for his tenth bogglingly bonkers week on Strictly Come Dancing. The story behind the tango was the politician as the most unlikely male model there’s ever been, continuing on his journey as the most unlikely national hero there’s ever been. He pouted for Morley and Outwood, the seat he lost at the last general election. He pouted for Norwich City, the football team of which he’s chairman where he would normally have been spending his Saturdays, had the earth not tilted on its axis and turned into a camply-spinning glitterball. He pouted for the whole of Britain, made love to the camera, held his dance partner Katya Jones in a tight clinch not remotely suggestive of a 49-year-old man lugging old, rotting carpet underlay to the skip. But it was all in vain. Ed Zoolander was out.
Oh what fun we’ve had, oh what fun he’s had. And ya boo sucks to the judges for what’s been called a plot to get rid of Balls. Introducing the Cha Cha Challenge at this juncture was akin to an election suddenly switching to proportional representation. It enabled the adjudicators to wrest our man’s fate out of the hands of the deranged public who’d been amused, vaguely moved and even more vaguely turned on by his stupendous displays of dad-dancing.
Yesterday Balls awoke to find himself the most popular politician in Britain. For the first time since the summer he didn’t have to be at a rehearsal studio for what was looking like a life’s project for the lovely Katya: ridding him of his two leftie feet and really making him glide. But he had this to consider amid all the interviews and chat-show invites: odds of 66-1 on him becoming the next Labour leader.
Frankly I’m surprised they’re as long as that. The party’s image is not in such rude health that it can ignore a little bit of what Balls has very obviously got, albeit that just recently the charisma hasn’t been as much in evidence around Keynsian economics as it has the charleston and the jive.
Balls as a future prime minister? Stranger things have happened, even stranger ones are happening right now. Before exiting Strictly he was nervous of the comparison with Donald Trump who’s gone from being a reality-show star to America’s president-elect. “Governing is serious,” he said. “If Trump thinks he can govern as if he’s [hosting] an entertainment show, that would send a chill down the spine.” But surely just as chill-inducing was the idea only a few weeks ago of Ball being viewed as cuddly and – wait for it – third in Grazia magazine’s “Chart of Lust”.
How did this happen? How did a not especially inspiring politico from a not especially vintage era in Labour politics – a bruiser, everyone said, with a poor popularity rating – become the funniest thing on TV? Who saw his mad professor skit coming? Or his mincing cowboy? Or thought that the man in line to run our post-crash finances could bodypop Gangnam Style? The answer is no-one.
As a country we love clowns, triers, reinventions, chumps, near-disasters, buffoons and improbable successes. Balls was all of these, so in that sense his new-found stardom is maybe not so surprising. But not every contestant from such a stiff and formal world would have been so game, so Gangnam, and certainly not every ousted politician in need of an image overhaul. Do you think George Osborne would have had the balls, as it were, for Strictly? Me neither. There was perhaps a clue that Balls would be this gloriously unselfconscious when he didn’t change his name. Surnames like Smellie, Pratt, Belcher are dying out; men so titled are the ones altering their names when they marry. Young Ed was teased relentlessly and while he decided to call his children Cooper after his wife Yvette, he’s soldiered on with Balls.
That he’s suddenly become our most popular politician doesn’t say very much for our engagement with politics or the kind of politicians we’re producing, but then we’ve known that for a while. What Balls has to decide is whether he re-enters the rammy or continues along a showbiz path. Either way politics could benefit. It wouldn’t seem such a grey-suited place if the honorable gentleman who once wore a yellow suit – and a green face – on primetime was to have a prominent role. Or, as had already been suggested, what about a TV programme popularising politics with Balls as its host?
One last point: Strictly needs to be wary. It’s still a successful show but needs competitors who surprise everyone including themselves with fresh lunacy. The judges may want the most best dancer to win but they upset the public at their peril. Those who preside from raised platforms, remote from the voters, can be easily toppled. Just ask a politician.