Treasury Questions today was rather formulaic. George Osborne spent a little while congratulating himself on today’s growth figures (only to be cut off by Bercow, who complained his answer was ‘far too long’), and loyal Tory MPs congratulated him too. Many of them chanted the phrase ‘long-term economic plan’. Some Labour MPs helped out by saying it too, which Osborne thanked them for. He has his own new phrase, which sounds a bit like a Backstreet Boys single: ‘Britain is coming back’.
‘Britain is coming back, alright,’ he (nearly) told MPs, before demanding that Labour congratulate him on the GDP figures. When it came to Ed Balls’ turn, he dispensed the usual formula of ‘today’s welcome news that the economy is finally growing again’ and then asked a question about whether living standards would rise and the Chancellor manage to balance the books by 2015. As usual, George Osborne didn’t answer it, but instead talked about car crashes. This time, though, he had a different angle: the real car crash that Balls was involved in. Osborne said:
‘I am delighted that the Shadow Chancellor is still here. He is the man who, quite literally, crashed the car. On that occasion he fled the scene, but when it comes to crashing the British economy he cannot escape scrutiny of his record. Let me be clear: we said we would get the deficit down, and the deficit has come down; we said we would recover the economy, and recovery is taking place. He predicted that 1 million people would lose their jobs, but 1.5 million jobs have been created. He has apologised to the lady whose car he crashed into—why does he not apologise to the British people?’
Balls’ riposte was pretty good, and sent the Commons into stitches:
‘If this Chancellor wants to have a discussion about whiplash we can do that any day of the week—Mr, Mrs or Mistress. However, let us not go back to biographies of the past; let us get back to the serious issue.’
The session was formulaic, but it did remind us of the serious issues facing both parties. For the Tories, it’s whether living standards will be rising by the 2015 election. It doesn’t so much matter whether they are now (electorally, that is), but whether voters’ circumstances are improving in time for polling day. Labour is asking the Chancellor about living standards now – when the election is still more than a year away. But the Tories do need voters to feel that their lives are improving even just a little so that they don’t decide that things couldn’t get worse by voting Labour. This is why Osborne sounds like he’s singing a 1990s pop song: he wants to give the impression that there is momentum in the economy, that Britain is coming back.
For Labour, though, the serious issue is of whether it can focus simply on living standards and successfully dodge the endless attacks on the party’s credibility. Today it wasn’t just the repeated mentions of the ‘long-term economic plan’, but also the reminders from across the Tory benches about Ed Balls’ mistaken predictions. Osborne had a special disapproving voice which he has clearly spent all Easter practising (although not at Rada, as some alleged), but he also has more and more Conservative MPs very happy to sock it to Labour on his behalf.