The political stock of Ed Balls has been on the rise recently. His ratings have improved in recent weeks. As part of Ed Miliband’s effort to have a more civilised discussion at Prime Minister’s Questions, he has been advised to curb his interruptions and his gestures which tend to look boorish.
In any case, the flat-lining gesture he used no longer works, with the UK forecast to have the fastest growth rate among major countries in the coming year. The “austerity means no growth” argument is out of the window and the emphasis is now on the cost of living crisis, the argument that the benefits of growth are not reaching voters, in particular “the squeezed middle” to which Labour is hoping to appeal in the general election.
The most difficult question for Balls to answer has been the car-crash question: “Why hand the keys back to the guy who crashed the car?” Labour, of course, would argue that it did not cause the global financial crisis and many neutral observers would agree that Gordon Brown played a useful role in contributing to international efforts to limits its effects. However, until recently, Balls has been reluctant to admit that Labour did anything wrong.
He is now more willing to admit that mistakes were made, in particular insufficiently tough regulation of the financial sector. His critics would argue that Labour’s big mistake was not to store up surpluses when the economy was booming, but to spend them, so that the UK ran out of money more quickly than it would otherwise have been. A temporary boom in tax revenues was interpreted as a structural and permanent change in the economy, although it can be argued that part of the problem here was the advice offered to ministers by the Treasury.
The opposition leader found responding to the budget speech yesterday “tough” and may regret that he took the task on. There was some disappointment about his speech, after he had to abandon the original version and launch a general attack on government policies. With the captain having failed to score, the goal was there for Ed Balls to hit.
Less bluster, more substance
It was certainly an improvement on his response to the Autumn Statement which was seen as a disaster for him personally and Labour generally. Admittedly, that set a low benchmark to start from – and he did seem distracted by heckling in a relatively sparsely populated chamber and by interventions from Conservative backbenchers. He had some difficulty explaining how, having accepted the principle of a welfare cap, he would pay for it, given his pledge to get rid of the spare room subsidy or bedroom tax.
Taking away the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners, which is what he suggested, will not be enough.
The shadow chancellor tried to start in a statesmanlike fashion, resorting to bluster less than usually and carefully addressing his remarks to the deputy speaker, looking at him as he made his remarks and ignoring the Treasury bench opposite.
However, he then started to descend into political knockabout. Admittedly, the bingo and beer poster issued by the Conservatives on Twitter had already attracted a lot of criticism on social media because of its apparently patronising tone and he was able to use it to reinforce the “them and us”, “out of touch” theme which Labour has emphasised. He pointed out that the one penny off the beer duty meant that one would have to drink 300 pints before getting a free beer.
He characterised the budget as the last chance for the chancellor and presented a long list of concessions or help that had been omitted. However, the length of this list blunted its impact – it was like reading a long sentence with lots of semi-colons.
Even so, he was able to make three key charges against George Osborne: that he had failed to eliminate the deficit by 2015, that he failed to rebalance the economy and that living standards had got worse, not better, under the Conservatives.
He also threw down a gauntlet to the chancellor, suggesting that the Office of Budget Responsibility should be able to review the spending and tax plans of all the political parties at the next general election. That might be a risk for Labour, although the OBR could be relied upon to be restrained and qualified in anything it said.
Balls passed the test, if not with flying colours. Now Labour will try to make its charge stick: that Conservative policies benefit the few. The Conservatives meanwhile will try and suggest that Labour lacks economic competence. Balls will be one of their main targets.