Autumn Statement Verdict: Osborne 3 Balls 1

Ed Balls: Tough gig for the shadow chancellor
Ed Balls: Tough gig for the shadow chancellor
Ian Dunt By

It was George Osborne's day and no-one was going to take it away from him.

He came in the Chamber confident, cock-sure and bullish. He performed well. It was telling that his voice held easily until the end. You don't need to put in so much effort when the wind is in your sails.

Each statement of validation from Osborne – and there were lots of them – was bolstered by shouts of 'apologise' and finger pointing from the government benches.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls spent most of the session self-consciously chuckling, shaking their heads and chatting to each other.


David Cameron looked exhausted after his China trip. He adopted a look of studied concentration. He nodded perpetually, although if you'd asked him what he was nodding at he probably couldn't have told you. As he grew more fatigued, the low point of the nod grew fell ever further and for once exciting moment I thought he might actually fall asleep. Alas, it was not to be.

Osborne reeled off the numbers – the highest upward growth revision since the millennium, a fall in the trade deficit, action on business rates to counter Labour's focus on SMEs, extending tax relief to regional theatre as an act of punishment against the provinces.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Balls as the moment came for him to stand up. The barrage of noise was so loud it seemed to almost solidify. Down there, in the bear pit, it is hard to overstate how difficult it would be ignore it.

The shadow chancellor was unaffected. Successful career politicians benefit from just enough emotional autism to ignore a room full of braying enemies desperate for their humiliation.

"The chancellor is in complete denial," he started. The Tories fell about themselves laughing. Andrew Lansley looked like he had experienced joy for the first time in years.

The only way to get heard above the din was by adopting a booming voice. Red faced and in danger of suffering a prolapse, Balls hammered out his points above the noise with precious little support behind him. Whatever you think of the man – he's not at the top of my Christmas card list – you had to admire the chutzpah. He just soaked up all the abuse and threw it back at them.

I'm told that on TV he looked somewhat deranged, the veins on his face bulging, his tone of voice grating. But in the Chamber it was somewhat more impressive. By the time he finished, the Tories had quietened down a bit. That was as much as anyone was likely to achieve.

He raised the married couples tax allowance – finally given the go-ahead today – and reminded Osborne, who never approved of it, that it would only help a third of couples.

"The chancellor thinks the prime minister's policy is a turkey," Balls said. "Merry Christmas, mister prime minister, merry Christmas."

Suddenly he wheeled on Iain Duncan Smith, who was standing at the front of the House, his arms folded together to his front, like a school bully waiting for his victim to come out the classroom. They squared up to each other across the Chamber, two burly Westminster attack dogs sizing each other up.

"No mention of the universal credit in this statement," Balls noted, his eyes staying on the welfare secretary. "IDS: In Deep Shambles."

That rose Labour from its slumber somewhat. Duncan Smith started barking something back but it was lost in the din.

"A complacent chancellor who sits there and thinks he deserves a pat on the back," Balls said, doing his best to give his rant at least a semblance of a final flourish.

After speaking for just ten minutes, his voice gave way.

Osborne stood up and calmly delivered the killer blow.

"The leader of the opposition and I agree on one thing," he said. "That was a complete nightmare."

It was Osborne's day and no-one was going to take it away from him. But for what it's worth, Balls gulped down his poisoned chalice with gusto.

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