Ed Balls has just delivered quite an odd post-Budget briefing. It was odd because he didn’t really want to criticise anything. Of course, when the Chancellor has just unexpectedly announced major reforms to the pensions system, it would be foolish for an opposition to start criticising a reform that it probably doesn’t quite understand. But the furthest the Shadow Chancellor would go was that it was ‘underwhelming’. He said:
‘Overall we thought that was pretty underwhelming: Ed Miliband had written pages of his speech which weren’t used in the end because they referred to things that might be in there but weren’t and, so, you know, he obviously had to fill the space by going on and on about Michael Gove’s comments…’
Balls explained that the speculation about a rabbit in the Budget had led Labour to suspect that there might be further moves on tax, but that this had not happened in the end. But it’s interesting that he decided to drop those comments about Miliband’s speech into the briefing. Perhaps he is still smarting from the way Labour colleagues dumped on him after his own poor response to the Autumn Statement.
Labour will vote in favour of the AME welfare cap, and will examine the pensions changes. But there was nothing the party wanted to oppose outright today other than a failure to talk about the cost of living. Labour doesn’t seem to want to say very much about today’s Budget, be it criticism or its own thoughts on policies. As Fraser says on today’s podcast, Labour hasn’t been left with very much to say.
What the party did seem to spend a fair bit of the Chancellor’s speech doing was trying to wake up Eric Pickles. Balls revealed to us that the Communities Secretary appeared to be asleep during the Budget, and that Labour frontbenchers were gesticulating at Vince Cable to nudge him awake in case he missed local government cuts:
‘Eric Pickles fell asleep for a quite extended period of time. And Ed and I were worried because, you know, you never know whether there might have been some big cut in local government spending coming which he didn’t know about and so we just politely suggested to Vince Cable that he should wake him up. And Vince elbowed and elbowed and it didn’t seem to make any difference. So Vince was actually knocking away and Eric Pickles basically – although at one point after a third nudge from Vince Cable, Eric started to nod knowingly at the contents of the speech while still, with his eyes closed… Then I think eventually, David Cameron intervened.’
But the rabbit that George Osborne produced today was quite a mysterious one and it has clearly wrong footed Labour. Balls decided to say that ‘as John Cleese may have said, that rabbit is deceased’. Whatever creature the Chancellor did produce today, it seems to have nonplussed the opposition rather.