If Ed Balls thought he could have done a better job than Ed Miliband at responding to the Budget, today he got his chance. The debate on the measures announced by George Osborne rumbles on in the House of Commons, and Ed Balls gave his speech on it this afternoon. He started by telling the Chamber that this was ‘the Chancellor’s last chance to make decisions and announce measures that will make a real difference before the general election’. Balls claimed that ‘for all [Osborne’s] boasts and complacency, the Budget did nothing to address the central reality that will define his time in office – the fact that for most people in our country, living standards are not rising but are falling year on year’. He quickly moved on to that poster/infographic/mistake, and produced a printout of it, which he waved jubilantly at Osborne, saying:
‘How patronising, embarrassing and out of touch that is. The Tory party calls working people “them”—them and us. Do the Tories really think that they live in a different world to everyone else? Does that not reveal just how out of touch this Tory Government are? It is no wonder that they do not understand the cost of living crisis and no wonder that the Chancellor did nothing in the Budget to tackle it.
‘We are told by the Chancellor that he did not know that the poster was coming out. The Tories’ chief election strategist did not know about the ad campaign that came out straight after his Budget—pull the other one! It gets worse. I hear that the Prime Minister did not properly understand what the Chancellor was saying. Apparently, when he told the Prime Minister that he wanted to cut taxes for Bingo, the Prime Minister thought he was referring to an old school chum: “Hurrah, another tax break for millionaires. Bingo, Bingo!”’
Osborne flung Ed Balls the sort of look of disdain that a cat gives a saucer of gone-off milk:
Labour hasn’t had the most impressive Budget, and its MPs seem privately a bit agitated by that. But party sources argue that continuing to complain about the cost of living rather than engaging with what the Tories did announce means Labour can keep preparing the ground for its own policy announcements over the next few months which answer the questions it is setting now. One says:
‘Yesterday we were disciplined about our framing of the economic challenge Britain faces. That has been our frame for a while and is going to continue over the next year. We think that there is something wrong with the way our economy is working and we wanted to put that front and centre. We have no reason to be apologetic about that. The Tories haven’t responded to the cost of living, and we think they don’t have the policies to do it, whereas we do & we have further policies in development through our Policy Review that address that challenge.’
Will those policy processes solve the problem Labour has highlighted in time, though? The policy review was originally intended to report in 2012, but that deadline was far too early and in any case, the panoply of reviews that the first policy review chief Liam Byrne set up meant it would have never concluded in time. But it will now be drafted in July ahead of this year’s party conference, and there are some concerns that there isn’t enough time to then sell those policies to the electorate, especially if they are initially characterised by the media as ‘socialist’ but turn out to have purchase with voters in the way that the energy price freeze did.