It’s never an easy job to respond to the Budget. Particularly not for Ed Miliband, facing both the Chancellor’s positive growth figures and roar from the Tory backbenches. Following the Labour leader’s effort last year, a Tory backbencher told me that the whips had prepped MPs to create a “wall of sound” to drown him out.
But, defying Westminster wisdom that he would tank, Miliband delivered a solid response to George Osborne’s final Budget this parliament.
And this was in spite of Osborne dodging Labour’s line that his planned cuts would take us back to Thirties levels of spending. He unashamedly swerved away from the cuts plan announced in his Autumn Statement last year, reducing his target for a surplus from £23bn by 2020 to £5bn, ending the public spending squeeze a year early.
As Stephen points out, this was one of the Chancellor’s many shots at Labour’s fox. But Miliband handled it. He pulled out a copy of the Red Book (the Budget report), and pointed out that the Tories still plan “massive cuts” in the next parliament. He revealed that the cuts in the next two years would actually be faster than the cuts under the coalition, and also that there would be “at least as many cuts in the next parliament as in this parliament”.
This helped Miliband continue to use one of his party’s strongest attack lines, about the “extreme” austerity ahead: “He had an extreme spending plan yesterday, and he has an extreme spending plan today”. This tied nicely into his refrain that this was a “Budget people won’t believe”.
Miliband’s only job today was to avoid being rattled or thrown off course by Osborne’s deft policy-snatching and attack-neutralising, and he managed it. But the only problem is that his rebuttal was overwhelmingly negative.
While Osborne bounced out of his seat and talked about the “sun shining” and a “come-back country”, Miliband was all doom.
His two overriding messages were negative ones: that the government missed its target to eliminate the deficit by the end of this parliament, and his warning that the worst of austerity is yet to come. These are problematic responses because they don’t allow Miliband to put forward Labour’s alternative positively.
Halving the deficit (as the government claims to have done) was Labour’s pledge in 2010. So Miliband can hit the Tories for breaking a pledge, but he can’t easily criticise their progress on the deficit in this parliament, considering it’s what Alistair Darling was aiming to do.
And fear of future austerity under the Tories is hampered by the fact that Labour is part of the “austerity consensus”, making it tricky for Miliband to put a simple, clear, positive case forward for Labour’s own cuts programme.
Hammering away at the holy trinity – NHS, cost-of-living and zero-hours contracts – is sound as a policy focus, but paints too gloomy a picture to obscure the Chancellor’s vision of sunshine.