Balls blames stammer for autumn statement slip-up

Ed Balls has refused to apologise for his confused response to the autumn statement yesterday, after the shadow chancellor got basic facts wrong in his response to George Osborne.

Balls was initially guilty of a slip of the tongue when he told the Commons that "the national deficit is not rising", prompting an instant barrage of mockery from the government benches.

He then committed a further factual error in his correction, telling MPs: "I will say it again. Our economy is contracting this year; government borrowing and the deficit are revised up this year, next year and every year; and the national debt is rising, not falling."

The UK economy is now forecast to contract by 0.1% in 2012 and Osborne confirmed yesterday he had failed to meet his "supplementary" goal of national debt beginning to fall by the end of the parliament.

But the transfer of Royal Mail pension funds to the public sector led to a one-off reduction. Borrowing in 2012 will be £108 billion, down from £125 billion in 2011.

With or without the transfer of excess cash from the Bank of England's asset purchase facility to the Treasury, Osborne told MPs yesterday, the deficit is falling.

It stood at 7.9% in 2011 and is dropping to 6.9 per cent in 2012 and 6.1% in 2012.

Balls continued to repeat his claim that both borrowing and the deficit were rising in 2012 throughout his statement.

"Everybody knows with me I have a stammer and sometimes my stammer gets the better of me," he told the Today programme this morning. "Especially when I have the chancellor and the prime minister and 300 Conservative MPs yelling at me at the top of their voices."

He said people's jobs were at stake, accused the chancellor of adopting a "sleight of hand" approach to the figures and insisted he needed to continue fighting the government's policies, before adding: "I don't apologise for one second. I'll keep making the arguments."

Osborne was dismissive in his response to Balls' comments in the Commons yesterday, after Balls claimed that Osborne was "not wavering, but drowning".

"There is only one person in the chamber who is drowning, and it is the shadow chancellor," the chancellor said.

"That was the worst reply to an autumn statement I have ever heard in this House. If one thing changes as a result of this statement, it might be a shadow Cabinet reshuffle."

Osborne continued his attack on his opposite number in his Today programme interview this morning.

"The reason why the House of Commons doesn't take Ed Balls very seriously – it's because he was the chief economic adviser when it all went wrong. He never admits he was there at the scene of the crime," he said.

"I think a more sensible approach for the Labour party… is that they should acknowledge some things went wrong, they went into a big bust, the banking system was poorly regulated. If they said all of those things I think people would be more willing to listen to Ed Balls there and elsewhere."