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.