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  1. Politics
23 March 2015

5 things we learned from the Chancellors’ debate

Labour are still haunted by the past, the Conservatives have no plan for housing in the forseeable future, and the first leaders' debates looks likely to be a snoozefest.

By Stephen Bush

1)  No winners, and one big loser.

There will be no big stories out of that display, which both George Osborne and Ed Balls will regard as a job well done. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and his opposite number did the political equivalent of playing out a goalless draw; it may have served both their purposes but it made for terrible entertainment.

Spare a thought for Sky and Channel 4; this is effectively the same format of the first “debate” between David Cameron and Ed Miliband on Thursday. On this showing, only the committed will make their way to the end of the programme.

2) The In campaign sounds troublingly like Better Together.

For more optimistic pro-Europeans this was heartening viewing; George Osborne struck a surprisingly pro-European note in his Q&A, talking about the importance of Britain’s role in Europe, and that the room was fairly pro-Europe bodes well for the In campaign’s ability to marshal elite opinion.

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But it all feels troublingly close to the “Leave and we’ll kill you” message that Better Together deployed in the independence referendum – which was only able to secure the support of 55 per cent of the vote. It’s not yet clear if the same approach can work with a union with far less in-built affection than the United Kingdom.

3) At some point, the Tories are going to have to build some bloody houses

The closest anyone came to floundering – and the closest this debate came to being interesting – was when George Osborne faced questions about the housing crisis. He ticked through the Conservatives’ buzzwords competently enough, but without a way to actually build more houses, looked flat.

It suggests that for all David Cameron’s attempts to find a policy with the appeal of Right to Buy, none of their warm words on housing will have much purchase until the building starts.

4) George Osborne has learnt from Bill Clinton

It’s rumoured that George Osborne has accepted that he will not be David Cameron’s replacement, but he looked more and more like a candidate for the highest office at Facebook HQ, standing up, pacing around, talking to people about where they were from. An immobile Ed Balls looked less technically accomplished.

5) Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Speaking of technically accomplished…it could be that the audience, too, was restless after George Osborne’s bore-a-thon, but it was a pricklier crowd for Ed Balls, who faced hostile questions about Labour’s legacy. Caught between defending the record and disavowing the whole thing, Labour still don’t quite have a convincing narrative on their last stay in office.