Quite naturally, there were rather more Conservative than Labour MPs in the House of Commons for Treasury Questions this morning. And quite naturally, George Osborne and colleagues on the Treasury front bench spent most of the session goading their Labour opponents about this morning’s growth figures.
Deputy Chief Whip Greg Hands and Ed Balls had a wonderful extended session of heckling one another across the Chamber as the exchanges went on, with Hands mocking Balls’ flatlining gesture.
Other MPs, though, were kept waiting rather longer to do what they’d turned up to do: jeer the Shadow Chancellor when he eventually stood up. But when he eventually stood up, 50 minutes into the session, the Conservative benches went wild with roars. Speaker Bercow was delighted, too, telling them ‘you’ve got the man at the box for whom you were waiting!’ before making a joke about ‘new balls’ in tennis.
The jubilation wasn’t stemmed by Balls’ first few words. In his normal angry disapproving tone that he specially reserves for days when something has gone right for the Conservatives, Balls barked:
‘After three damaging years of flatlining in our economy… after three damaging years of flatlining, today’s growth figures are welcome.’
He then complained that Osborne didn’t understand that ‘this is still no recovery at all’ for ‘working people facing a cost-of-living crisis’. All standard fare, and Osborne decided to tease him about the insecurity of his job and the ‘gritted teeth’ through which the Shadow Chancellor was welcoming the good news. Osborne added:
‘He didn’t only say it wouldn’t happen, he said it couldn’t happen if we pursued our economic plan. He predicted that jobs would be lost and a million have been created. He predicted that the deficit would go up and it has come down. He predicted there would be no economic growth unless we borrowed and spent more. He has been wrong on all these things and Mr Speaker, what they need on the other side of the House is new crystal balls.’
Balls, possibly already a little riled by the Speaker’s tennis ball joke, was not amused at all by this.
‘Very good. Very good. Very good. Very good chancellor, a joke about my name being called Balls. Fabulous.’
It was never going to be an easy day for Balls, and he did not make it look easy, either. But where he did score a hit that will at least leave him thinking that he got something from that bruising session was on his next question, about the top rate of tax. He demanded that the Chancellor rule out cutting the top rate of income tax to 40p. ‘Come on, George, stand up and rule it out!’ he bellowed. Osborne gave a perfectly workmanlike answer, but of course he didn’t rule it out. Which gives Labour something to campaign on.
Osborne himself has a new line that he was trialling at Treasury Questions today. Clearly taking the advice of his junior minister Nicky Morgan that it’s dangerous for parties to simply be seen as anti-things, he decided to paint Labour as not just anti-business, but, anti-, well, everything. He said:
‘It is up to those in this House who promote an anti-business rhetoric to get up and explain to the House how that could possibly help our economy. The truth is that by being anti-business, they are anti-recovery, anti-jobs, anti-investment, anti-the British people.’
Perhaps Balls might add that they’re also anti-joke.