Osborne lands some low blows against Balls

The Chancellor’s attempt to mock Balls’s stammer was a crude joke.

If today's Treasury Questions was anything to go by, the Commons clashes between Ed Balls and George Osborne should become compulsory viewing. Of the two, it was Osborne who struck the lowest blows. He welcomed Balls to the despatch box by joking that he now knows "what it feels like to be the people's second choice", referred to Ed Miliband as "the man he did the photocopying for" and, in an apparent reference to Balls's stammer, declared: "He clearly had a lot of time to prepare that but I'm not sure it all came out as he expected."

In a recent Times interview (£), the shadow chancellor explained: "There will be certain consonants that I just can't say together. It would be impossible for me to start a sentence with an H. I often start sentences with 'look' or 'well' because the key thing is to get moving." Osborne's decision to highlight as much in the Commons felt like a joke too far.

On economics, it was Balls who got the better of his opponent. Labour's Keynesian pitbull begun by joking that he was glad he didn't have a breakfast meeting this morning because he would have missed the Chancellor's "rather hurried mini-Budget". He went on to contrast the performance of the US economy with that of the UK economy. Both suffered heavy snow in December, but one expanded (by 0.8 per cent) while the other contracted (by 0.5 per cent). Balls quipped: "Is there something different about snow in Britain?"

Osborne, buoyed by encouraging data on services, retail and manufacturing, wasted little time in damning Balls as "the City minister who knighted Fred Goodwin", as the man who "has no plan at all" and (inevitably) as a "deficit denier".

But, as Balls suggested, Osborne could soon found himself back on the defensive. There is a strong possibility that the Chancellor will be forced to downgrade his growth forecast for this year in the Budget on 23 March. Growth last year was 1.4 per cent, well below the OBR forecast of 1.8 per cent, and is unlikely to be much higer this year.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicts growth of just 1.5 per cent in 2011, below the OBR forecast of 2.1 per cent.

Should the economy remain stagnant, Osborne's insults will be of little use to the government.

Update: Courtesy of Left Foot Forward, here's some footage of the clash.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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“Trembling, shaking / Oh, my heart is aching”: the EU out campaign song will give you chills

But not in a good way.

You know the story. Some old guys with vague dreams of empire want Britain to leave the European Union. They’ve been kicking up such a big fuss over the past few years that the government is letting the public decide.

And what is it that sways a largely politically indifferent electorate? Strikes hope in their hearts for a mildly less bureaucratic yet dangerously human rights-free future? An anthem, of course!

Originally by Carly You’re so Vain Simon, this is the song the Leave.EU campaign (Nigel Farage’s chosen group) has chosen. It is performed by the singer Antonia Suñer, for whom freedom from the technofederalists couldn’t come any suñer.

Here are the lyrics, of which your mole has done a close reading. But essentially it’s just nature imagery with fascist undertones and some heartburn.

"Let the river run

"Let all the dreamers

"Wake the nation.

"Come, the new Jerusalem."

Don’t use a river metaphor in anything political, unless you actively want to evoke Enoch Powell. Also, Jerusalem? That’s a bit... strong, isn’t it? Heavy connotations of being a little bit too Englandy.

"Silver cities rise,

"The morning lights,

"The streets that meet them,

"And sirens call them on

"With a song."

Sirens and streets. Doesn’t sound like a wholly un-authoritarian view of the UK’s EU-free future to me.

"It’s asking for the taking,

"Trembling, shaking,

"Oh, my heart is aching."

A reference to the elderly nature of many of the UK’s eurosceptics, perhaps?

"We’re coming to the edge,

"Running on the water,

"Coming through the fog,

"Your sons and daughters."

I feel like this is something to do with the hosepipe ban.

"We the great and small,

"Stand on a star,

"And blaze a trail of desire,

"Through the dark’ning dawn."

Everyone will have to speak this kind of English in the new Jerusalem, m'lady, oft with shorten’d words which will leave you feeling cringéd.

"It’s asking for the taking.

"Come run with me now,

"The sky is the colour of blue,

"You’ve never even seen,

"In the eyes of your lover."

I think this means: no one has ever loved anyone with the same colour eyes as the EU flag.

I'm a mole, innit.