Ed Balls had a rather shouty time in the Commons this afternoon when he responded to George Osborne’s spending review statement. It was a shame, because his lack of variation in tone and pace from ‘angry bellow’ level made what wasn’t a bad response a little difficult to follow.
These responses to budgets, autumn statements and spending reviews are very difficult for any shadow chancellor or opposition leader to carry off well: you have no warning of what the Chancellor will say, and just the length of the speech itself to re-shape your pre-crafted speech and collect your thoughts. But Balls had decided when preparing for the spending round that he would talk about the government’s failure to meet its own targets and to foster economic growth, and on living standards. Yesterday’s Treasury Questions underlined the problems with talking about borrowing for both parties, particularly Labour. Living standards make a better line of attack.
Balls decided to focus on what the government said it would do, and then didn’t. He said:
‘Does he remember what he told the House three years ago in his first Budget and Spending Review? He said the economy would grow by six per cent – but it’s grown by just one per cent. He pledged to get the banks lending – but bank lending is down month on month on month. He made the number one test of his economic credibility keeping the AAA credit rating – but on his watch we have been downgraded, not once but twice.
‘He promised living standards would rise – but they’re falling year on year. He said we’re all in this together – but he has given a huge tax cut to millionaires. He promised to balance the books – and that promise is in tatters. Failed tests, broken promises. His friends call him George, the President calls him Jeffrey… but to everyone else he’s just Bungle. Even Zippy on the frontbench can’t stop smiling Mr Speaker. Calm down, Zippy, calm down.’
But what his speech didn’t do was set out what Labour would and wouldn’t do. Sure, there was a section asking why Osborne wouldn’t scrap winter fuel payments for the richest pensioners or introduce a 10p tax rate funded by a mansion tax. But Balls knows that’s not enough.
In many ways, a shadow chancellor’s response to these fiscal events doesn’t matter, because all the constraints listed above. This was a holding statement. He will find those six dividing lines – and these questions from CCHQ below – following him around over the next few days. His response to each question will be far more instructive – and difficult.
1.Would Labour match the £11.5 billion of savings in 2015-16?
2.Do you oppose any of the cuts announced today and if so how would you pay for reversing them?
3.Would Labour borrow more to spend more than the Government’s capital spending plans in 2015-16?
4.The Government has excluded the basic state pension from its welfare cap. Will you keep the basic state pension inside Labour’s welfare cap?
5.The SR announced 180 new free schools in 2015-16. Will you cut these?
6. Will you vote for the back to work welfare reform package, including the 7 day wait for benefits and the English language test?