No opposition leader looks forward to responding to the Budget. It’s one of the harder gigs as you get little notice of the detailed measures that may cause real rows and are scribbling feverishly throughout the statement to try to make your pre-written speech sound relevant. But it is still an achievement that Ed Miliband in his own response managed to avoid talking about anything in the Budget other than the new design of the pound coins.
He started by reminding the House of Commons of how much further the Chancellor needs to go before hardworking families up and down the country feel as cheerful as the Tories. He said:
‘But he did not mention one central fact: The working people of Britain are worse off under the Tories. Living standards down: month after month, year after year. 2011 – living standards down. 2012 – living standards down. 2013 – living standards down. And since the election working people’s living standards £1,600 a year – down. You’re worse off under the Tories.’
The point about living standards is a valid one. But it doesn’t answer the question that Osborne set in his speech, which was who has the greater credibility to deliver the cuts necessary after the 2015 election.
Miliband then went back two years to his favourite budget to talk about the 50p tax before challenging the Prime Minister to rule out lowering the 45p rate to 40p in a future parliament. David Cameron and George Osborne chuckled at him while Danny Alexander looked distinctly dead bodyish. Labour sees this as an excellent attack line that it can use over and over again in the run-up to the 2015 election given the fallout from the 50p decision in 2012. But it doesn’t have much to do with today’s budget.
And then he relished the Eton Mess in the Tory party, saying:
‘What is the latest rebrand from the Bullingdon club? It is beyond parody. Because what does this lot now call themselves? They call themselves ‘The workers’ party’. And who is writing the manifesto for this new workers’ party? We already know the answer and I quote: “There are six people writing the manifesto, five went to Eton…”
‘By my count more Etonians writing the manifesto than there are women in the Cabinet.No girls allowed. And this week we’ve heard it right from the top. Here’s what his former best friend, his closest ally, the Education Secretary had to say about the Prime Minister’s inner circle. He said it was, and I quote: “Ridiculous. Preposterous. Unlike anywhere else in the world.” You know you’re in trouble when even the Education Secretary calls you a bunch of out of touch elitists.
‘And where is the Education Secretary? I think he has been banished … He’s hiding! I think he has been consigned to the naughty step by the Prime Minister. I think it’s time we listened to Baroness Warsi and took the whole Eton mess out of Downing Street. And what a mess it is.’
Some commentators are unimpressed with Miliband’s class war. But who was it who gave him licence to become a class warrior in the House of Commons Chamber? It was the Tories, who have spent the past week talking about Eton, and who have been rumbling for months about the same topic. They have been off-message in the week running up to the Budget, their own senior ministers have gone on freelance missions which deliberately highlight the PM’s weak spot on Eton, and they have drawn attention to the fury that this caused in Number 10. The Conservatives served up the meat for Miliband on a well-garnished plate this week. They should be kicking themselves for being so absorbed in a non-existent leadership contest that they made themselves class warriors, not moaning that Ed Miliband noted a weak spot. It was one of the cannier things he did today.
P.S. It’s worth noting that the Tories did initially try to do a Treasury Support Group wall of noise on Miliband during his response. Greg Hands and Gavin Williamson were both rebuked by the Deputy Speaker for roaring. But they didn’t muster quite the same intimidating atmosphere as they did for Ed Balls at the Autumn Statement in 2013.
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