Ed Balls: why I struggled against Osborne yesterday

Shadow chancellor says "sometimes my stammer gets the better of me".

Normally one of Labour's strongest Commons performers, Ed Balls visibly struggled yesterday as he responded to George Osborne's Autumn Statement. In an interview on the Today programme this morning, the shadow chancellor sought to explain why. As I suggested yesterday, it was the news that borrowing is set to fall, rather than rise, this year (owing to Osborne's manipulation of the figures) that wrongfooted Balls. Here's what he told Sarah Montague.

What happens in the House of Commons when you are responding to that statement is you have none of the figures, none of the documentation, and you have to listen to the chancellor. The outside forecasters were all expecting a rise in borrowing this year, because it has risen for the first seven months ... it was impossible to work out in that first minute or two what was going on.

The reason is because the Chancellor decided to slip the money for the 4G mobile spectrum into this financial year but he did not even say that in the House of Commons.

Asked whether he did his job "well enough yesterday", Balls made reference to his stammer.

Everybody knows with me that I have a stammer and sometimes my stammer gets the better of me in the first minute or two when I speak, especially when I have got the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and 300 Conservative MPs yelling at me at the top of their voices. But frankly, that is just who I am, and I don’t mind that. What I want to do is win the arguments about what is right for Britain, for jobs, for our economy, for our deficit, and for lower and middle income families in our country. And that is more important to me Sarah than the first two minutes of an exchange with people braying over the dispatch box and I don’t apologise for one second. I’ll keep making the arguments.

But in his own interview on Today, Osborne declared: "It's got nothing to do with the fact that he [Balls] has got a stammer, it is because he was the chief economic adviser when it all went wrong, and he never acknowledges that." Ever mischievous, the Chancellor also praised David Miliband (one of those previously touted as shadow chancellor), who he claimed had acknowledged Labour's mistakes.

Privately, Labour figures concede that Osborne won the political battle yesterday, but with no end to the grim economic news in sight, the smart money is still on Balls to triumph.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.