Balls makes new challenge to Osborne to back OBR audits of party manifestos

The shadow chancellor writes to Osborne as Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie says that OBR auditing could "enhance the quality of public debate".

When Ed Balls announced at the Labour conference that he wanted the OBR to audit every tax and spending pledge in the party's election manifesto, the idea was immediately torpedoed by the Tories. With Osborne and Cameron determined to run a 1992-style election campaign that targets Labour's "black hole", they were never likely to approve a move that would enhance the opposition's fiscal credibility. And since Balls's proposal would require an extension of the OBR's remit, he could not proceed without their agreement. 

But that has not deterred the shadow chancellor from returning for another try. Labour has published a draft amendment to allow the OBR to "provide independent scrutiny and certification of the policy costings of any political party which has at least 5 per cent of seats represented in the House of Commons at the request of that political party." In addition, Balls has written to Osborne urging him to support the proposal, so that the change can be made "well in advance of the 2015 general election". 

He also has written to Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury select committee, who responded tonight by saying that "OBR involvement has merit if it can enhance the quality of public debate on tax and spend."

"In 2010, the Treasury Committee recommended that the OBR should have absolute discretion over the work it undertakes. I made clear in the Commons that this should include examining, at their request, the fiscal policies of opposition parties at election time. Both the Government and the Opposition rejected this approach at that time.

"If the OBR were to undertake this work, it would be essential to obtain a measure of cross-party support about the terms under which it would be conducted."

In a striking exchange with Tyrie in the Commons in October 2010, George Osborne said that "There is a question of whether we want the OBR to be able to cost Opposition policies at the time of a general election. I propose to have discussions with Opposition party leaders about whether that is the appropriate thing to do, and it would be a legitimate matter for the House to debate and decide."

The discovery of that quote will make it a lot harder for Chancellor to now dismiss the proposal out of hand.

You can read Balls's letter and Labour's amendment in full below. 

Dear George,

As you know, I recently proposed that the role of the Office for Budget Responsibility be enhanced by enabling it to provide independent scrutiny and certification of costings of political parties’ manifesto commitments on spending and tax, while ensuring the OBR is not drawn into party politics by commenting on the merits of individual policies or examining alternative policy scenarios.

While the Chair of the Treasury select committee has previously said he is not absolutely sure the current legislation necessarily rules out such a role, the Chairman of the OBR has told me that the legal advice he has received from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department is that a change in the law is necessary for the OBR to carry out this role and to develop a political consensus on this change and protect the OBR’s independence.

As I said in Brighton, we would support any changes needed to the OBR’s Charter and primary legislation and would seek to build cross-party consensus to achieve it.

In order to achieve that consensus, I am today publishing a draft amendment to the law which would enable the OBR to carry out the role I have proposed. The Clerks of the House of Commons inform us that, with your support, one option available to us is to table this amendment to next year’s Finance Bill so that the change could be made well in advance of the 2015 general election. 

I hope you will support this important reform, which I believe will enhance the role of the OBR while maintaining its impartiality and independence and ensure a more informed debate in Britain at the next election.

I am also writing to the Chair of the Treasury Committee to seek his support for this change.

I would be happy to discuss my proposal with you further and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Balls MP


Draft amendment

Office for Budget Responsibility

The Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 is amended as follows:

(a) after subsection 4(4) of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 insert –

“(4A) It shall also, before a General Election,

(a) provide independent scrutiny and certification of the policy costings of any political party which has at least 5 per cent of seats in the House of Commons at the request of that political party, subject to receiving sufficient information from that political party,

(b) state whether it agrees or disagrees with the policy costings of the political party making a request, or whether it has been given insufficient time or information to reach a judgement, and

(c) publish details of the independent scrutiny and certification of policy costings conducted under subsection (a) on the Office website, and place a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.”

(b) omit subsection 5(3)(b) and insert –

“(b) may not consider what the effect of any alternative policies would be, except in the performance of the duty contained in subsection 4(4A) above.”

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.

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage