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Ed Balls: 'I would not be at all surprised if Trump was given a second term'

Following his appearance on Strictly, Ed Balls is touring the US talking to the supporters of the 45th president

Former Labour MP Ed Balls
Former Labour MP Ed Balls

By Georgia Humphreys

Ed Balls is discussing the dos and don'ts of donning a leotard. No, he's not referring to his Strictly Come Dancing days (in case you missed it, he was the unexpected star of the 2016 series). The former politician actually wears a skimpy Union flag number to enter the wrestling ring in new BBC Two show Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls.

"I'm not someone who previously had bikini line concerns, but they wanted me to wear a really tight-cut leotard and I thought it would be unflattering," says the 51-year-old father-of-three, who's married to Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

"I had a pair of black boxers under it. Had I only worn the bikini line, that might have ruined it for the viewer."

He decided not to shave his legs and torso, like his fellow wrestlers did. "My kids think dads should be embarrassing, but that I substantially overachieve," he says.

"I could explain to my 13-year-old why it was important to do the wrestling, but if I'd have been waxed and shaved, she would have said it was too much."

The series sees the ex-shadow chancellor walk in the shoes of a variety of supporters of US President Donald Trump to try and understand why they voted for him.

"Lots of people will assume they're either deluded and don't understand, or extreme and dangerous, but we just met really nice, ordinary people," he says.

"I thought that, after the first year, Trump would be losing support, but we didn't find that at all, and it wouldn't surprise me if he was given a second term."

The three episodes look at different issues facing Americans, such as the gun control movement, immigration policies and how they feel about their country since the former reality star was elected in 2016.

It's obviously very timely, especially because it's airing so soon after Trump's first official visit to the UK, which led to tens of thousands of people protesting through the streets of London.

"I thought he'd drop the wild persona and become a more reasonable, centrist president but he hasn't at all," Balls says.

"You assume it can't get worse, but it actually does."

As well as being an insightful and entertaining series, what might surprise viewers is how emotional it is to watch.

In the first episode, Balls stays at a farm with a group of war veterans and, as well as hearing their thoughts on Trump, he joins them round a campfire for a toast to friends who lost their lives in service.

He asks to toast late Labour MP Jo Cox, a mum-of-two who was murdered by a far-Right extremist outside her constituency surgery in Birstall, near Leeds, a week before the EU referendum.

"The only thing which felt comparable to me was Jo, who I knew very well," Balls says of the moving scene.

"I did a lot of campaigning and fundraising with her.

"From a personal point of view, Jo losing her life is a terrible thing, obviously.

"I'm somebody who has three kids and a partner who does exactly the same kind of surgeries every Friday, so it could absolutely have been us. I could think about what it's like to be Jo, but I also think about what it's like to be her family."

Balls agrees that competing on Strictly - where he won fans over with his memorable salsa to Gangnam Style - showed the public a different side to him.

"People kept saying to me, 'We always knew you were a politician, but it's great to see you're a human being as well'."

With presenting this documentary series taking him out of his comfort zone once again, he says we can expect to see even more of his personality.

"It's impossible to be in a character for so many hours of filming each day, so it's impossible to conceal who I am," Balls elaborates.

"It's entirely unscripted, so it ends up being very honest. I let it all hang out - literally and figuratively."

Did he look to an experienced documentary maker like Louis Theroux for inspiration?

"I took a decision that I shouldn't watch anyone else doing this kind of thing until we had made the first episode. I didn't want to try and be someone else.

"If you asked me what the genre is, it's a mix of old-style, early Louis Theroux meets The Real Marigold Hotel and little bit of Ruby Wax.

"I tried to let the characters do the talking. I reveal my opinions to camera, but not to the people I'm with."

After tough days of filming, Balls knew he would be able to turn to his wife for support.

"The second episode deals with the Parkland shooting," he says, referring to the horrific shooting at a Florida high school in February, when a gunman killed 17 students and staff.

"We thought the pain was going to be talking to the 18-year-old in the class who was shot in both legs and face, but actually, it was talking to her mother.

"After, I rang Yvette because it was so hard and you need a bit of empathy.

"Our kids are 19, 17 and 13 - they go to school each day and you assume they will come home."

Going back to politics, it's an undeniably difficult time for the UK Government right now, too, what with the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Discussing why people voted to leave the EU, Balls suggests: "Some were anti-European, and the world, but maybe it was a roll of the dice.

"People think, 'The status quo's not worked for me, let's roll the dice and try something new', which is a very challenging thing for a politician."

It was during the 2015 General Election that Balls lost his seat in the Morley and Outwood constituency, in West Yorkshire. He doesn't seem to envy those currently working as an MP.

"I'm regretful politics is so chaotic at the moment and I look back at better times wistfully," he says.

"But if you said to me, 'You could be in Parliament, or you could do this show at the moment', I'd definitely choose this show."

Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls, BBC Two, tomorrow, 9pm

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