George Osborne was playing historian today as he responded to Ed Balls’ urgent question on the credit rating downgrade, charting Labour’s role in the UK’s loss of the AAA rating; particularly the deficit it bequeathed the Coalition. But he was in revisionist mood when it came to his own stance. As Ed Balls repeatedly leant across the despatch box and tried to hand the Chancellor a copy of the Tory 2010 manifesto in which the party lists ‘we will safeguard Britain’s credit rating’ as the first of its eight benchmarks, George Osborne told MPs that what he had always said was important was the confidence of the markets.
MPs were largely in a tribal mood. Ed Balls had a good turn of phrase on the downgrade:
‘He has gone in a weekend from saying he must stick to his plan to avoid a downgrade, to saying the downgrade is now the reason he must stick to his plan. He used to say a downgrade would be a disaster, today he says this downgrade doesn’t matter – but he is still warning a further downgrade really would be a disaster.’
Pat McFadden, meanwhile, had a neat jokey question, asking ‘does the Chancellor agree with himself’ that losing the AAA would be a humiliation? Tory backbenchers dutifully howled and pointed at Labour at key moments, shouting ‘apologise’ at Balls as he started his Urgent Question. Some of their loyal questions were more effective than others. Claire Perry, never knowingly unenthusiastic, reminded the Chamber that Britain still retains its AAA rating with other ratings agency, perhaps forgetting in her excitement that Standard & Poor’s and Fitch are expected to follow Moody’s in the next few months.
Most of the fight was just that: a grumpy little scrap and not particularly edifying. Ed Balls focused on Osborne being humiliated, and Osborne focused on Balls’ commitment to even higher borrowing and his dearth of concrete economic policies. There were even some jokes about songs that summed up the economy. What did we learn? Nothing at all, not about the Coalition’s policies or about Labour’s.
The Chancellor will have been heartened, though, by the overall support he received from Tory MPs. They were clearly enjoying his confident response: the Chancellor is often accused of arrogance, but a little self-assurance goes a long way when your back is up against the wall.
There was just the slightest hint of what the Chancellor is facing from his own backbenchers, which came from Philip Davies. Davies told the Chancellor the economy needed ‘proper tax cuts’. And this afternoon, Brian Binley, who did not speak in the debate, released a statement calling for a ‘far more nuanced and sophisticated approach than other Budgets have delivered to date’. After Adam Afriyie’s unapologetic piece in the Mail on Sunday yesterday (and I understand that we have by no means heard the last of Afriyie), expect to hear many more calls on the Chancellor to be ‘bold’.