Boris Johnson risks putting his own personal ambition to lead the Tory party above Britain’s national interest in staying in the EU, Ed Balls has warned.
The former Shadow Chancellor has told HuffPost UK that the Mayor of London has been “playing political games” by flirting with the Brexit camp in recent months.
And with an EU referendum campaign expected in June, Mr Balls praised his long-time political enemy George Osborne for “putting the country’s interests before his own…in contrast to some of his rivals”.
His remarks came as David Cameron prepared to appear alongside German leader Angela Merkel on Friday to make his last setpiece speech on the subject ahead of a crunch Brussels summit.
With the Prime Minister set to unveil his final reform plans in a week’s time, Boris faces the biggest political decision of his life over whether to back Mr Cameron and campaign for the ‘In’ camp, or to join the Brexit campaign.
In recent weeks, Mr Johnson has said that he wants “much, much more” out of Brussels than so far included in the draft deal on a brake on migrant benefits and protections for Britain’s national sovereignty.
But with Boris expected to face Mr Osborne in a future Tory leadership race, Mr Balls warned that he risked disunity over Europe that even Blair and Brown had avoided despite their other differences.
In a rare foray into domestic British politics, Mr Balls told HuffPost UK: “Twenty years ago, there was a temptation to see the issue of whether the UK should join the Euro as part of a domestic power battle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But everyone now sees there were bigger issues at stake.
“The same applies today. Whether the UK stays in the EU is much more important to Britain than who succeeds David Cameron as the next Conservative leader. It’s time to put party politics aside, and win the argument that Britain will be better off in than out.
“The fact is there are clearly a few politicians playing political games with this issue, not realising it's much bigger than that.
“Say what you like about George Osborne, at least he's putting the country's interests before his own on this issue, in contrast to some of his rivals.”
Boris Johnson, set for No.10 as Tory leader?
When David Cameron steps down later this Parliament, many expect Boris to battle it out for the Tory leadership with the Chancellor and Home Secretary Theresa May. Eurosceptic MPs have said that the next leader will have to back Brexit to win support of grassroots Tory members.
In a reverse of Mr Balls' logic, some Tory MPs argue that if Boris fails to back Brexit, he will have put his personal ambition to get in the Cabinet above the national interest in quitting the EU.
Speaking from the United States, where he is a visiting senior fellow at Harvard, Mr Balls stressed his own ‘Eurosceptic’ credentials as the man who had kept the UK out of the euro currency when he was chief economic adviser to Gordon Brown.
And in a separate editorial for the Wall Street Journal published on Friday, he said it was ‘understandable’ that Britons wanted to quit the EU in part because of the “woeful” performance of the eurozone.
He said that the economic and diplomatic benefits of staying in the EU outweighed other considerations, but warned Mr Cameron that the 28-nation bloc had to get a firmer grip on immigration.
And in remarks that are sure to be picked up by British Eurosceptics, he revealed that he felt the current draft deal failed to meet such concerns.
Ed Balls, conceding defeat on election night in May 2015
The former Cabinet minister, who lost his Yorkshire seat at the 2015 general election in part due to voters’ worries over migration, said border controls had to be imposed by the EU and freedom of movement rules radically changed.
“In Britain, the scale of migration by East European workers seeking jobs across the English Channel has been the biggest driver of anti-EU sentiment by far. And the current refugee chaos is pouring fuel on that fire,” he said.
“Mr Cameron recently has been bargaining to renegotiate aspects of Britain’s membership, aiming to use the concessions to bolster his campaign for staying in. While he has achieved the helpful goal of limiting benefits paid to migrant workers, Europe’s leaders have shown no interest in revisiting the rules on free movement of labor. But I believe it is just a matter of time before they do.”
“If Europe does not eventually agree to restore borders and impose controls on economic migration, the initiative will pass to populist forces on the far left and right whose aims are not to manage globalization fairly, but to exploit prejudice and rig markets in favor of homegrown producers.
“Those necessary EU changes will not come quickly enough for Britain’s referendum but that is all the more reason why Britain must retain its influence in Europe to fight and win these arguments in the years to come.”
Ed Balls, with Chris Kamara on the BBC's Great British Bake-Off for Sport Relief this year
Mr Balls and Mr Johnson have clashed repeatedly over the years. In 2014, Boris once said the former Labour MP had “the terrible, pop-eyed air of a man undergoing an unexpected prostate examination”.
The Mayor once described Balls and Ed Miliband as the “Thelma and Louise of British politics”, read to drive the car of the economy off a cliff.
In 2010, Boris was so irritated by the then Education Secretary’s remarks about the teaching of Latin that he said: “I am glad not to be in the same room in case I should reach out, grab his tie, and end what is left of my political career with one almighty head-butt”.
Mr Balls has made clear he doesn't expect to return to frontline British politics and has in recent months carved out a new career as an academic in both London and Harvard.
He is also the chairman of Norwich City football club and recently appeared on the BBC's Great British Bake Off for Sport Relief.