Sketch: Blistering Balls tears up the Budget

Ed Balls doesn't make a habit of holding back
Ed Balls doesn't make a habit of holding back

The Smirking Gun spent the afternoon blazing away at a thoroughly bemused chancellor.

By Alex Stevenson

It's hard to concentrate on your work when, from a corner of the office, a television is showing uproar just down the corridor. The television was on the Commons chamber, where Ed Balls was giving his considered response to yesterday's Budget. Judging from the excitement, something was clearly up.

The kerfuffle seemed to be caused by the effervescent Balls, who has the soul of a young puppy trapped in the body of a middle-aged man, being taken to task by George Osborne sitting in what the Speaker calls a "sedentary position". "Why doesn't he offer an intervention?" Balls asked, the picture of innocence. Finally, eventually, Osborne stood up, to sarcastic cheers from the Labour backbenches, and made his point.


It simply wasn't worth carrying on with whatever task Thursday afternoon had in store, for this was just one of a number of uproarious incidents punctuating Balls' speech. It only takes half a minute to get into the Commons chamber from politics.co.uk's desk in the press gallery.

Staggeringly, only a couple of parliament's more devoted hacks were present. The boring Budget, when the chancellor reads from a piece of paper for an hour, might be newsworthy, but it's certainly dull as a spectator sport. This was where the real entertainment was to be had.

Her Majesty's loyal press were missing a virtuoso performance. Balls had so much pent-up politicking inside him, forced to watch Ed Miliband get all the attention yesterday, that the soundbites were tripping up over themselves as he rushed them out. He brandished the Budget red book like a weapon. His gleaming eyes were alight with all the passion of a man he can go on and on till the cows come home. The Smirking Gun was hitting the target sitting opposite. "Maybe they do that in Kensington and Chelsea [it doesn't matter what it was], but they don't do that in the House of Commons," he said at one stage. And at another: "I'm sure the chancellor didn't notice the VAT cut. I'm sure he won't notice the VAT rise, either."

Strangely enough, the government benches were loving it. They snorted with derision as much as they openly laughed, it is true, but the net impression was they were having a thoroughly good time listening to Balls' preposterous claims. They couldn't help but admire his effusive fizziness, even if they thought it was complete clap-trap. There were no genuine Tory grandees present, so I don't believe I managed to detect a "pshaw!" But you get the drift.

What a contrast with the man against whom so much of this tirade was directed. Osborne listened laconically, if such a thing is possible. His left leg was laconically draped over his right. His right hand clasped his left hand laconically in his lap. He was slouched - well, you know how he was slouched. Laconically.

From this comfortable position he emitted a constant stream of lazy, idle heckles, with all the insouciance of a wispy young maid draping her hand in the water of some cool stream. "There has been some confusion in the last 24 hours," Balls said at one stage. "On your side!" Osborne retorted. "The chancellor should have adopted our plan for growth and jobs." Osborne: "What is your plan? What is your plan?" You get the idea. They could go on and on. Actually, they did.

It took a jibe about the winter fuel payment for Osborne to rouse himself. He lent forward and, with that natural authority which befits his station in life, gave the despatch box a weighty slap. Balls, delighted that the goading had roused his rival, leapt to his seat. The chancellor pointed out that he was carrying out Labour's plans on winter fuel payments in the last Budget. This should have been something of a setback for Balls, but he didn't let it bother him. He carried on regardless, and the moment was soon forgotten.

Osborne had shown up to assist Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats' business secretary. All the while Cable had been sitting quietly, with all the patience and self-assurance of someone sitting on a nuclear button. Apart from muttering under his breath whenever he was taunted by Balls, he left the heckling to Osborne. Once the chancellor reached over to his Budget and showed Cable a section, explaining his point with florid hand gestures. Cable nodded tersely. He already knew what he was going to say, for it was printed on a page in front of him.

"His starting point seems to be that the past is another country," the business secretary began over the top of his spectacles. "His rather bumptious self-confidence can't conceal the fact he's left behind a massive legacy."

The Smirking Gun watched in a self-satisfied sort of way, if that's possible. It was clear he was delighted at the compliment.

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