Autumn Statement's Red Ed Mark II: Balls Turns Brighter Shade of Puce in Osborne Challenge

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By Nick Assinder Political Editor | December 6, 2013 12:47 AM EST

Ed Balls (Reuters)

So now we have two Red Eds. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls turned such an alarming shade of puce during his assault on George Osborne that there were fears he was about to explode like a Christmas party popper.

Like the rest of his performance, there was no shading here, no subtle hues of pink, just solid blocks of almost Day-Glo colour applied with a shovel.

Osborne, he said, was complacent, out of touch, a friend to millionaires, bankers and energy companies (a guaranteed "boo") and was in denial. That last one pitched the Tory benches into a near hysterical mixture of disbelief and spluttering laughter at his sheer gall.

Part of Balls' complexion problem was the fact that he needed to shout at Concorde-level decibels to be heard above the baying mob on the Tory side yelling things at him, mostly "apologise".

But the redder he turned, the more they shouted, confident it was they who had got under his skin for once rather than the other way around. We are used to seeing Balls muttering and gesticulating at the prime minister during Question Time and successfully bringing down David Cameron's own red mist. Today it was his turn.

His response to Osborne's extraordinary autumn statement -  in which the chancellor appeared to get away with making a vote-winning virtue out of being the Ebenezer Scrooge of the Treasury - reprised all his usual themes. And that was the problem.

It is probably always wise for the opposition to wait a few days after an autumn statement or budget before making detailed criticisms, because much of the detail is always buried in Treasury documents and not announced in the Commons chamber.

But Balls took it a touch too much to heart this time and appeared to have little new to say at all. He had a couple of half decent jokes about badgers not being the only beasts moving the goalposts (a reference to Osborne's failure to refer to his 2010 growth predictions) and one quip which may or may not have been accidental.

Spotting work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith in the chamber, he pointed out the minister had been forced to admit what everyone and his dog has been predicting for months, that he was going to fail in his target of introducing Universal Credit by 2017. The fact IDS attempted to bury this damaging fact on autumn statement day only added to his embarrassment.

Balls declared: "IDS is in deep sh.........ambles, Mr Speaker" OK, probably not an accident. And absolutely accurate. IDS has been under the cosh for months and any number of Tories, probably including the Chancellor himself, wonder why he is still in a job and not drawing his own universal credit.

Balls did have a single strong line of attack - that those "hardworking people", presumably as opposed to all those slackers around the nation, are now and will continue to be worse off despite all the "smoke and mirrors" of the Chancellor's statement.

But this line has been discounted by everyone and, therefore, lost nearly all its political impact.

And Osborne, clearly buoyed up by the rousing response he got from his own benches and the fact that most of it appeared to be genuine, hit back in unusually effective form.

He agreed with Ed Miliband, he said: "that was a complete nightmare". And he had a good joke of his own.

Referring to an interview Balls had given explaining he had to miss his piano exam to attend the autumn statement, he said: "He should have gone ahead with his chopsticks rendition."

This was always going to be a difficult performance for Balls to pull off because of his history as chancellor in the last Labour government and his constant predictions that Osborne's plan A would fail.

And so it proved. Observers even started to believe that maybe Osborne means it when he says he wants Balls to remain in post right through to the next election.

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