The Tories cynically veto Balls's plan to allow the OBR to audit Labour's manifesto

Osborne is determined to claim that there is a "black hole" in Labour's spending plans, whatever the Office for Budget Responsibility may say.

One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour victory at the next election remains the lack of economic trust in the party. Three years after David Cameron and George Osborne entered office, it is still blamed more for the spending cuts than the coalition (owing to "the mess" it left in 2010) and viewed as fiscally irresponsible. With Labour likely to pledge to invest significantly more than the coalition in housing and other infrastructure projects (while abiding by George Osborne's day-to-day spending totals), it is politically vital to shift this perception.

That is the task that Ed Balls has set himself for his speech today in which he will announce that he has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit every tax and spending pledge in Labour's election manifesto. Balls will say:

In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.

The British people rightly want to know that the sums add up. So we will go one step further and ask the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – the watchdog set up by this government – to independently audit the costings of every individual spending and tax measure in Labour's manifesto at the next election.

This is the first time a Shadow Chancellor - the first time any political party in Britain - has ever said it wants this kind of independent audit. A radical change from what's gone before, but the right thing to do to help restore trust in politics.

It's a smart move that provides Ed Miliband with some political cover ahead of his speech tomorrow, which is likely to include major spending commitments on housing. But, crucially, Balls's plan would require an extension of the OBR's remit, which does not currently allow it to scrutinise the opposition's fiscal policies. Any change to this would require the approval of parliament, with number-cruncher-in-chief Robert Chote emphasising that a "cross-party consensus" is "highly desirable".

But just 17 minutes after Balls's announcement, the Tories put paid to any hope of securing one, with Sajid Javid, the increasingly prominent Economic Secretary to the Treasury, declaring:

Ed Balls knows this is not allowed under the Budget Responsibility Act and the OBR's charter, so this is just a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments that would just mean more borrowing and more debt.

Nothing has changed - it's the same old Labour. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still want more spending, more borrowing, and more debt - exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. And it's hardworking people who would pay the price through higher taxes and higher mortgage rate.

The Tories' decision to torpedo Balls's plan is entirely politically motivated. There is no reason in principle why they should refuse to allow the watchdog founded by Osborne in 2010 to audit Labour's policies. But there are plenty of political ones. The Tories are understandably reluctant to allow Labour to enhance its fiscal credibility and to repeal claims of a "black hole" in its plans.

Tonight, Balls's SpAd Alex Belardinelli has rightly responded by asking how the Tories intend to justify their opposition to the proposal.

It will be worth watching to see how Osborne's team respond when independent figures, dedicated to encouraging evidence-based policy, deplore their cynicism.

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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