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21 March 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:07am

Forget Osborne. It was Miliband’s afternoon

The Labour leader came out fighting. His critics should take note.

By Mehdi Hasan

Forget the Budget. As the IPPR’s Will Straw pointed out on Twitter:

What a waste of an hour. Nothing in the #Budget that hadnt been leaked.

Indeed. The Hugh Dalton era is well and truly over. George Osborne stood at the despatch box, with his glass of water, and performed a glorified version of a TV-news-channel paper review, confirming the various leaks and briefings to the press – from the cut in the top rate of tax to the increase in the tax allowance. But there was no still no sign of a stimulus package; no plan for growth. The Osborne slump continues.

The economics, therefore, took a backseat to the politics. This was, after all, yet another test for Ed Miliband. How would he perform? What would he say? How would he sound? The coalition’s bizarre decision to slash the popular 50p top rate of tax, in particular, presented the leader of the opposition with an open goal – and, this time, he didn’t miss. He looked – and sounded – confident; his opponents, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, looked exasperated and annoyed as they sat and listened.

Miliband had facts:

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What did the Chancellor say in August last year about America’s more balanced deficit plan:

    “Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy?”

    Mr Deputy Speaker, the numbers are in.

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    And the Chancellor is plain wrong.

    The US economy grew at 1.7% last year, twice the rate of ours.

    This Government have run out of excuses.

He had outrage:

Under his tax cut, a banker earning five million pounds will get an extra £240,000 a year.

Let’s call this what it really is:

The Government’s very own bankers’ bonus.

He had humour:

It is great to support the great British success stories like Downton Abbey.

    A tale of a group of out of touch millionaires.

    Who act like they’re born to rule.

    But turn out to be no good at it.

    Sound familiar Mr Deputy Speaker?

    We all know it’s a costume drama.

    They think it’s a fly on the wall documentary.

My own favourite gag/trick was when the Labour leader asked members of the coalition cabinet, seated opposite him, to raise their hands if they would be personally benefiting from the cut in the 50p top rate of tax. It was a cheap shot – but it hit home. Millionaire ministers shifted uneasily in their seats; some – I’m looking at you William Hague and George Young! – looked away and pretended not to hear. “Just nod,” proclaimed Miliband, deploying a favourite put-down of the Prime Minister to great effect.

It was, in my view, a brilliant speech – especially given how difficult and awkward it is for leaders of the opposition to respond to Budget statements in the Commons, at such short notice. One friend of Miliband told me: “We were pretty pleased.” Well, that’s an understatement! Another source close to the Labour leader said the speech was a “group effort” but that “Ed and Torsten [Henricson-Bell, Miliband’s economics adviser and the Labour Party’s new director of policy] get most credit” for writing it. If only his conference speech had been delivered with such gusto. . .

The former Labour minister and ardent Blairite, George Foulkes, who backed David Miliband in the 2010 leadership contest, tweeted:

Ed Miliband has delivered the best Budget response I have heard from Opposition Leaders in 33 years in Parliament.

Brother David joined the tributes, with this brief tweet:

Excellent Budget response by Ed.

The pessimists and defeatists on the Labour front and backbenches should take note not just of the dismal failure of the coalition’s austerity measures – which some of the more right-wing among them would like to ape and emulate – but also their leader’s bravura performance this afternoon. Yes, I admit: they are few and far between; far too few for my liking. But Miliband can do it. So, as I’ve said before, give him a chance.